I decided to start a gallery of all the ads I’m creating for the the release of Yeshua’s Loom: A Tapestry of Cats. I hope you’ll feel inspired!
I’ll add to them as I go along . . .
“A worthy sequel to Cat Born to the Purple! Francisco’s books have a lovely poetic style and a gentle spirituality that enlivens and inspires even if the reader does not share the writer’s Christian perspective. Her cats are distinctly cats, with thoroughly feline perspectives. Each location, each emotion, each happening is described with a vivid sensuality and an emotional richness that puts the reader directly into the action. The theology is generous, humane, and intelligent, with plenty of room for cats!“
“Highly recommended! A powerful story told by sentient cats of the woman who becomes Lydia, seller of purple, and offers the Apostle Paul wisdom destined to change the future of Christianity. Francisco’s evocative, lyrical descriptions bring to life a cat’s-eye view of the feelings, sights, and sounds of biblical times. Loom’s unique perspective—blending philosophy, spirituality, and astute observations on human faith—will intrigue any reader who enjoys thought-provoking accounts of biblical history.”
“Francisco has woven a fascinating tapestry in Yeshua’s Loom with deftness and sensitivity. Animal lovers (and especially cat lovers) will respect the way she has made her cats a part of the divine creation and given them hidden wisdom. As a device for sharing the life of Jesus and his disciples, the feline observations are both charming and intellectually satisfying. A singularly unique fictional series which works well as fantasy fiction and Christian parable!”
My favorite thing about beginning a new book is all the new research required. It’s like being turned loose in an exotic new universe with an unlimited railpass–but, unfortunately, no maps. The internet can be as irritating as a poorly drawn subway map with half the lines left out or mislabeled, but once I stumble onto the right line, I hardly stop to eat or sleep! If I didn’t go half blind and start hitting dead ends and duplications I might never stop to write. I share T. H. White’s feelings about learning:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
― T.H. White,
Among the many things I’ve explored in my research for the 5th Yeshua’s Cats’ book, the details of Pompeii’s houses may be the most intriguing–perhaps because I knew absolutely nothing about Roman houses! So, on the chance that you may find the subject engaging too, I thought I’d do a post about them.
Here is the clearest plan I could find of the basic Roman house, or domus. Unfortunately, although it comes from Wikipedia, the original source is not given. A more detailed description of the separate rooms is available here.
The difference between an moderately wealthy city house and the seaside villas of the obscenely wealthy is clear from the plans below (Villa of Mysteries and moderate city house).
Most Roman houses–modest or palatial–were lined up on a visual axis from the main entrance, through the large public room, or atrium, and eventually out through the courtyard and garden. If you look at the house plan above, you can see this. The view below, of the House of Menander, is typical of a wealthy home. The photo was taken near the entrance, looking through the tablinum, toward the courtyard.
Apart from ventilation, this axis seems intended to give visitors the most impressive view possible of a home when they first entered. After all, status and wealth made the Roman world go round. In the words of the mosaic in the entryway of the merchant’s house below, SALVE LVCRVM, “Welcome (hail) profit!”
If you refer to the house plan above you can follow me as I explore the layout, with examples of the different types of rooms found in Pompeii. BTW, most photos, if not labeled otherwise, came from an amazingly helpful site on Pompeii, https://sites.google.com/site/ad79eruption/pompeii/
Even the wealthiest homes in Pompeii opened directly onto the street and shared walls with the houses on each side–unless the owners were wealthy enough to own the entire city block (insula). A back entrance for servants and tradespeople usually opened off a narrow corridor on the side or rear. The street front of the Menander House (above) was slightly set back from the sidewalk by a raised bench, possibly for people to sit upon while waiting to see the master of the house. The metal gate is positioned where the wooden door stood.
Once inside the house, the visitor finds herself in an entry hall called the fauces, #2 on the plan. The fauces below leads into the House of the Ceii. Like almost all the houses in Pompeii, the walls were frescoed in fairly standard styles. Archaeologists now classify early Roman wall paintings as Pompeiian styles 1-4. The style below is #4. If you look at the plan, you can see that the fauces runs between shops that open onto the street.
At the inner end of the narrow fauces the visitor emerges into the large main room, or atrium. Most atria had openings in the center ceiling to let in light and collect water for the cisterns, which were buried in the floor. The opening in the ceiling was called the compluvium. The pool that collected the water below and drained it into the cisterns was the impluvium. You can see both clearly in the photo below from the House of the Lararium. Also below is a cut-away diagram showing the location of the cistern, and a closeup of rain spouts from the House of Casca Longus.
From the look of the modern photo below by Roger Ulrich, the atrium isn’t an ideal place to sit on a rainy day! I assume that the rain spouts and guttering in the diagram following would have prevented such drenching rain-spatter.
The atrium was the main public room of the house, and opened onto a room called the tablinum, where the master of the house did business and kept accounts. The tablinum was at least partially open on both the front and back sides to allow for airflow, light, and a clear view into the colonnade and garden. Draperies provided privacy when necessary. Below is Lund University’s virtual image of the tablinum (right) in the House of the Ceii, with the typical hallway or andron on the side (left). An identical andron ran along each side of the tablinum.
Often in Pompeii the rooms directly on the street were rented out to businesses, or used as shopfronts by the family living in the house. If they were rented shops, there was no access to the house itself. As shown on the house plan, these rooms were called tabernae. They could be rented apartments, living quarters for family servants, storerooms, or shops. As shops,they were often thermopolia, or cafes (below), where hot and cold food was served from deep dishes set into marble counters. Businesses like bakeries and laundries usually occupied whole buildings. Craftsmen used such rooms for selling their own goods, while using the house behind as their home and shop.
Atria sometimes had an open alcove to one side, perhaps where guests might be seated, called an ala, (#10 in the domus plan above). The photo of the atrium in the House of the Vetti (below) shows an ala on the left. The entrance is to the right.
Atria also commonly housed household shrines (lararia) as well as elaborate strongboxes intended to demonstrate the family’s wealth. (below)
The small closed rooms called cubiculae on each side of the atrium are bedrooms, either for guests or family. The House of the Orchards had two bedrooms lavished painted with gardens (below). Bedrooms were also located upstairs, and sometimes opened off the courtyards.
Bedrooms rarely had windows. For that matter, neither did the rest of the rooms in the house. Except for rare windows in rooms facing into the peristyle, the only windows in Pompeiian houses tended to be tiny and set high up on the walls. The exception to this rule were in very wealthy homes on the coast itself, where windows with sea views might be found in any room of the house.
Of all the cultural differences between ancient Roman houses and modern American ones, the thing that surprised me most was the placement of family bedrooms around the main room in the house–the one most frequently visited by strangers. Although this arrangement was the result of older housing patterns built around a courtyard as a common living space, nothing else quite communicated to me the vast difference between “personal space” or privacy as I understand it and the ancient Roman one.
Here is a virtual reconstruction of a bedroom from the House of the Tragic Poet:
Immediately past the atrium and the tablinum with their adjoining rooms, was the courtyard, or peristyle, a colonnaded garden space with rooms around its side. Larger, wealthier homes often had more than one courtyard, as well as a large open garden. The rooms around the peristyle were usually used for dining and entertaining: the triclinia, or dining chambers, and the excedra, or banqueting room. Wealthy homes often had several triclinia. The kitchen (culina, #12), latrines, and baths (in very wealthy homes) were in this back area as well. Oddly enough, the latrines were often located in a corner of the kitchen, perhaps because of the easy access to water.
Upper Floors, Fountains, Paintings, and Mosaics
Because most of the upper floors of Pompeii’s houses were destroyed, piecing together a lifestyle that includes them has been difficult. A few still stand, and virtual reconstructions have been attempted:
The multiple stories of some cliff-side villas withstood the eruption better– for instance, the House of the Relief of Telephus at Herculaneum:
The larger mansions often had multiple pools and fountains in the peristyles and gardens. One house in particular, the House of Octavius Quartio, has an extravagant series of fountains and canals. The House of the Large Fountain has a particularly fine fountain (below).
Below is a selection of Pompeiian wall paintings and mosaics. I hope you’ve enjoyed your tour!
I’ve been thinking a lot about how This Madness of the Heart (and all the following Miranda Lamden Mysteries) fit together with my Yeshua’s Cats series–and why I feel certain the two series can coexist as books by the same author. But since my reasons are more feelings and instincts than logic, I’ve had trouble putting them into words.
So I did what I often do when I need to make sense of something: I created a piece of art (below). After all, what good is an art therapy degree if you can’t use it to clarify your own confusion? If I’m lucky, by explaining the image I’ll be opening up what lies behind it!
So, what are you looking at here?
First, I chose a Hubble image for the background: “Interacting Spiral Galaxies” . . . surely ideal for this project, since galaxies don’t often interact–anymore than churchfolk and professor-sleuths! It felt like a propitious beginning.
Three interlocking circles fill the foreground. The center circle pulses with a glowing gold and green light; the Christian Chi Rho emerges from its heart.
What is the Chi Rho? Like most symbols, it has different meanings across cultures, but for me it’s a symbol used by early Christians in the first three centuries after Yeshua’s birth–before Constantine transformed it into an imperial banner (the cross didn’t emerge as a Christian symbol until after the year 500).
The Chi Rho gets its name from the two Greek letters that overlap to create the symbol: Chi and Rho, the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, or Christ. In the image above, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega are added. I did experiment with using a cross in the center circle, but I like the visual effect of the Chi Rho better, probably because it has “rays” like the sunburst. Anyway, the central circle is meant to be the Christian faith–not the organized religion–but the living faith of all the individuals who hold themselves to be Christian.
The circle to the right is Mari, from Yeshua’s Cat, turning aside from a path in a green forest to investigate the central circle. In her circle she represents all of the natural universe. Creation. Everything that exists naturally, apart from the intervention of humankind. This natural order also includes human beings, since they’re part of the created universe–but not their civilizations.
The totality of the created world–as we know it on Earth–is flowing back from Mari’s search like the tail of a comet.
The circle on the left is where Miranda, my detective, lives. Her circle is the world of human civilization–urban, complex, multi-cultural, and often unsure exactly what they believe. Many, like Miranda, have their roots in Christianity, but have turned away from the church. Spinning out from her circle is a spiral of different world religions. But in her circle she, like Mari, has paused to examine something about the Christian faith that has caught her eye.
Both Mari and Miranda live outside the Christian fold, and they approach it from opposite directions. Mari moves from the non-human, natural environment, Miranda from a detached, urban, academic world. Still, both find themselves intrigued by the light in the center circle. Mari has the easier approach: Yeshua introduces himself by saving her life, and she joins him as a friend. But Miranda has been scarred by her Christian experience; she mistrusts the church and its agendas. As a professor, she sees all religions as examples of the human yearning toward the divine. Truth claims don’t enter the picture. She simply records what she observes, without making judgments. Her methods are catlike: she steps cautiously toward anything new, not committing herself, poised to slip back into the shadows if conflict threatens.
I knew a number of women like Miranda in my years apart from the church. Their worlds were full and rich, but they didn’t screen their experiences through a Christian worldview. Yet they were sometimes attracted by a light shining out from this tradition many of them had left behind.
. . . maybe the light shone through a person
a man like Elmus
or as comfort in the midst of evil
perhaps through the One’s presence in some crisis of their own
or simply in prayer and meditation.
But today we live in a world where it’s increasingly difficult to say, “I believe.” The language is lost. What does it mean to believe? Who are we believing in? People who live in the secular world can’t respond to most Christian overtures–because they don’t understand the words anymore. God-talk is becoming literal non-sense to those outside the churches.
People like Miranda are who they are, just as cats are cats. Each responds to life according to their gifts . . . but for some reason those inside and outside the churches are drawing further apart.
Perhaps we might learn from the effort, and love, we put into cross-species communication with our cats (and dogs, gerbils, birds, and ferrets) . . . and look at the incomprehensible human beings around us as if they concealed inner selves as delightful, unique, and full of surprises as a cat’s. It’s not really such a stretch.
I happen to find the lives of alienated Christians intriguing, perhaps because I’ve been there myself. And if the polls are right, their numbers are growing. Their honesty is often fierce, like their determination never to be taken in again by faux-Christianity and self-serving lies. Sadly we don’t have to look far to find the lurking predators they’re avoiding. And that’s what This Madness of the Heart is about.
Miranda peers into the light of Christian faith–but she looks from a place apart. Her own experiences haven’t shown Christianity to be that promised “light to the gentiles.” So she watches, examines, records, and considers. In the meantime, I feel privileged to narrate her journey.
Click here to visit my Miranda Lamden Mysteries site.
Doing the research for The Cats of Rekem was a long and fascinating process. Perhaps the most surprising part of it was discovering how little we really know about those first days after Paul’s vision on the Damascus road. Here are the only biblical verses (from The New English translation) that describe those days:
Acts 9:19-25–[immediately after his conversion] “He spent some time with the disciples in Damascus. Soon he was proclaiming Jesus publicly in the synagogues. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the Son of God.’ All who heard were astounded. ‘Is not this the man,’ they said, ‘who was in Jerusalem trying to destroy those who invoke this name? Did he not come here for the sole purpose of arresting them and taking them to the chief priests?’ But Saul grew more and more forceful and silenced the Jews of Damascus with his cogent proofs that Jesus was the Messiah. As the days mounted up, the Jews hatched a plot against his life; but their plans became known to Saul. They kept close watch on the city gates day and night so that they might murder him; but his converts took him one night and let him down by the wall, lowering him in a basket.”
2 Corinthians 11:32-33–“When I was in Damascus, the commissioner of King Aretas kept the city under observation so as to have me arrested; and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his clutches.”
Galatians 1:16-20–“When that happened [his conversion], without consulting any human being, without going up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me, I went off at once to Arabia, and afterwards returned to Damascus. Three years later I did go up to Jerusalem to get to know Cephas. I stayed with him for a fortnight, without seeing any other of the apostles, except James, the Lord’s brother. What I write is plain truth; before God I am not lying.”
In the Acts account, in the paragraph following the one above describing Paul’s escape from Damascus, Luke speaks of Paul’s trip to Jerusalem, where he met all the disciples. In light of Paul’s own words in his letter to the Galatians above, I believe Luke must have been describing a later trip to Jerusalem. Paul states clearly that he went immediately to Arabia from Damascus. The three passages above, then, are our only sources for Paul’s departure from Damascus.
So what do we know about Paul’s night at the wall? Let’s look first at the wall itself.
The biblical text in Galatians uses the word θυρίς, thuris, which means a small opening or window. The text in Acts merely says Paul was lowered through the wall; no opening is specified. So, perhaps the word need not be translated “window.”
I had some difficulty imagining a window in the middle of a Decapolis city wall, so I started researching 1st C CE city walls in Roman Syria, specifically at Damascus. I discovered that not much more than a few foundation stones are visible in Damascus, underneath later walls dating mostly to the Middle Ages. But I did discover that Damascus was transformed by its Seleucid (Greek) conquerors somewhere around the 3rd C BCE. The city was then rebuilt along N/S and E/W axes, in much the same pattern that remains today. The city walls were rebuilt as well. When the Romans took over Damascus in the mid-1st C BCE, they set to work rebuilding much of the city again, adding their typical monumental touches. They also strengthened the walls and extended them outward to include an area larger than the earlier Greek walls. The Roman walls stood approximately where the walls stand today.
In the pictures below you can see a reconstruction of the east gate in the Roman wall surrounding the Decapolis city of Hippos, and a model of the Decapolis city of Scythopolis (Bet She’an), with the city wall around it. Notice in both that the only openings/windows are in the actual gate towers, which are guard quarters. The walls themselves are high and smooth, without openings, although the spaces in the crenelations might be called “openings.”
But what exactly did Roman walls look like? How were they constructed? I discovered that there is an amazing amount of research dedicated to the study of Roman walls. As a result we know quite a lot about their internal structure and appearance. By the time of the Roman building projects in Damascus (which were approaching their peak when Paul visited there), Roman walls were often being constructed with a rubble core faced with concrete and tiles. The huge quarried stones of earlier walls were being used only for the foundations.
Hadrian’s Wall is a good example of this style of wall, and has survived well enough to be studied thoroughly. The pictures below are artist’s reconstructions of Hadrian’s Wall.
This rubble-core style of wall-building is described in The Cats of Rekem. Such walls would lend themselves even less easily than ashlar walls to openings/windows, even if windows were considered desirable in defensive walls. Nowhere did I find Roman walls like the early ones pictured in childhood Bible studies, where city walls were made up of the walls of houses haphazardly connected together. So, how could there be an “opening” in the Damascus wall, “through” which Paul might be lowered in a basket? I decided that a collapsed rubble wall might serve the purpose: perhaps poorly made, weakened by earthquake, attack, or collapse of subterranean chamber–any of those would do. The result would be a breach in the wall that might be described as an opening. There you have the basis of Paul’s adventure as I described it in The Cats of Rekem.
I also moved Paul’s escape route to a different part of the wall from the one that Church tradition identifies, in the photo above. I agree with Ross Burns, in his excellent book, Damascus: A History, that a location right over a Roman gate–and in the Jewish quarter, was an unlikely place for a successful escape. You can see that the traditional gate above, Bab Kisan, is #3 on the map of Old Damascus as it is known today (above). That same gate is on the map of Roman Damascus (also above), and located on the south side, near the eastern corner: at the major market thoroughfare and adjoining the Jewish quarter. Paul’s escape in The Cats of Rekem is marked by the words “broken wall,” just north of the gate under construction on the eastern wall.
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“Grace dances . . . dance, all of you!”
—The Acts of John
Heresy vs orthodoxy is the stuff that breeds wars, and Church history is full of it. Without getting into a discussion of Church councils and the creation of the Christian canon, I’d like to look at a 2nd C gnostic gospel that was pronounced heretical—and see what it might say to us today.
The Acts of John was condemned by Church fathers as docetic (docetism is the belief that Jesus’ humanity and physical body were an illusion). To modern eyes John can be a peculiar book, full of bizarre notions and unappealing ideas—particularly its contention that the spirit of Christ abandoned the man Jesus to suffer on the cross alone, while the divine essence stood apart, untouched by pain.
But if you can set that notion aside, The Acts of John offers a number of intriguing thoughts. Perhaps most familiar is a lovely passage known as “The Circle Dance of the Cross,” in which, the night before his death, Jesus invites all his disciples to form a circle and dance around him. Those of you who have read Yeshua’s Cat may recognize the last four lines of the quote below as part of Yeshua’s conversation with his mother before he left Nazareth for the last time.
Here is an edited version of the original text:
[Jesus] stood in the circle’s center and said, “Answer ‘Amen’ to everything I say.” Then he began to sing a hymn, saying:
“Glory be to you, Father.”
And we, moving around him in a ring, answered him: “Amen.”
“We praise you, O Father; we give thanks to you, O Light where darkness cannot dwell.”
“I would be saved, and I would save.”
“I would be freed, and I would free.”
“I would be wounded, and I would wound.”
“I would be born, and I would give birth.”
“I would eat, and I would be eaten.”
“I would hear, and I would be heard.”
“I would be thought of, being wholly thought.”
“I would be washed, and I would wash.”
“Grace dances. I would pipe; dance, all of you.”
“I would mourn: lament, all of you.”
“Amen . . .”
“The Whole on high takes part in our dancing.”
“Whoever does not dance cannot understand what is coming to pass.”
“I would flee, and I would stay.”
“I would adorn, and I would be adorned.”
“I would be united, and I would unite.”
“Amen . . .”
“A lamp am I to you who behold me.”
“A mirror am I to you who perceive me.”
“A door am I to you who knock at me.”
“A way am I to you a wanderer . . . “
Christian mystics down through the centuries have used the metaphor of dance to describe the human relationship to God, and I found John’s Circle Dance delightful.
Well, I mused, if The Acts of John can include the Circle Dance, what else might I find? So I examined the book more closely. Another idea present throughout the book is that Jesus appeared in many different guises while he walked the earth. I must admit that John’s list allows for a few more possibilities than the canonical gospels: a child, a young handsome man, a youth just bearding, a middle-aged balding man, a small ugly man, a huge heavenly man, a being of whiteness and light, a man with a soft yielding body, a man whose body was hard as stone, a body firm to the touch, and a body with no physical solidity at all. John describes the significance of these guises with the words, “. . . his great grace, his unity that had many faces . . . “
Those words reminded me of recent critics in the search for the historical Jesus who point out that people of every age have tried to mold Jesus into their own ideal of who he should be—thus hopelessly muddying the waters for anyone trying to discern the true historical person.
But here’s my thought: what if Jesus’ message right from the beginning was intended to be a message for all ages and all people? What if his message always had access points that could lead people along diverse paths to the One through him? What if he included embryonic possibilities in his teaching that could support every positive interpretation ever put on his original message? Everything from human rights, the light within, and justice—to caring for the environment and liberation theology? What if most Christian heresies, while diverging from the mainstream, have a unique glimmer of this truth?
Unfortunately, we as humans too often seize on glimmers of truth as if they were the final and complete word of God rather than single facets. Just so the Church has long been at fault for trying to narrow Jesus’ message to fit their limited understanding, enclosing it within a box made to their order. In the hands of the Church, too often the multifaceted diamond of Jesus’ message has been transformed into a stony concretion in crumbling stone—frozen and trapped beneath masses of accumulated tradition.
“His unity that had many faces . . .” is one insight from The Acts of John that we might wish to heed. What if one of Jesus’ primary goals—long obscured by human ignorance—was to bring healing to the shattered images of the One, fragmented for so long among human cultures? What if he offered freedom, and the brilliant unity of God’s countenance, to all people—and we have warped them instead into shadow and condemnation?
Just a thought.
Anyone who has studied the history of religions is aware of the shift in human consciousness that began sometime in the last millennium BCE and lasted into the early centuries of the Common Era. During those years human religious practice moved dramatically away from old communal forms and took on more personal expression. Individual human beings began to approach their gods in increasingly distinctive ways, and more and more spiritual teachers emphasized the value of individual human lives. Even C. G. Jung tried to explain the phenomenon in his Psychology and Religion West and East.
In India the sage Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, offered seekers a Middle Way to enlightenment between the extremes of asceticism and worldly sensuality. In Persia Zarathustra introduced the idea of the freedom of individual human beings and the importance of their choosing to labor with the God of Light, Ahura Mazda, against the forces of darkness and ignorance.
In Israel the prophets emerged, offering ethical virtues such as compassion and mercy as alternatives to the old sacrificial system; Hillel the Elder followed in the 1st C BCE with his Golden Rule, and his famous statement that “whosoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world, and whosoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Jesus of Nazareth, born around 4 BCE, brought a unique gospel of love and life to humankind, known for two millennia as Christianity.
All around Jesus, throughout the ever-spreading Roman Empire, Mystery Religions were attracting followers by the tens of thousands. In each of these Mysteries, individual men and women found hope of eternal life through initiation into secret knowledge unavailable to those outside their communities. Dionysian, Eleusinian, Cybeline, Isaic, Mithraic, and Orphic mysteries were but some of them. In many instances the secret knowledge was imparted through the initiate’s participatory experience in the death and rebirth of the god or goddess.
In the process of writing The Cats of Rekem, the third volume in the Yeshua’s Cats series, I wandered into the jungle of Greco-Roman Mystery Religions. I won’t try to offer an explanation of why they exploded into the ancient world, but they were spreading like wildfire across the Mediterranean basin in the years before and after Yeshua’s life. Early Christians were well acquainted with these religions, and in many cases they came to the Church from them.
Numbers of people have written countless volumes of material about the relationship between early Christianity and Mystery Religions, some scholarly and accurate, many biased and inflammatory. As a writer of historical fiction whose characters are rooted in the beliefs of their day, I came up against the question of Mystery Religions in a very personal way. In particular, I found myself needing to understand exactly how Yeshua’s original message differed from the message of the Mysteries. And I didn‘t want to expound the same old Christian apologetics and bland assurances that no overlap ever existed. It obviously did.
So I dusted off my books on Greco-Roman culture and began to refresh my memory. I took notes, and made charts. I even drew up a spreadsheet. I concluded that there were many, many apparent similarities between the practices of the early Church and the Mystery Religions; in fact, there were far more similarities than differences—baptism, equality of men and women, depictions of mother and child, separation of the community from the wider society, hope of immortality through the death and resurrection of a god or founder, ritual commemoration of that same founder’s death and resurrection. The list goes on and on.
But this left me with two troublesome questions. First, did these obvious similarities in the early Church really reflect Yeshua’s message? And second, allowing for the possibility that they might not, how did Yeshua’s message itself differ from the Mysteries? I even went so far as to wonder what he might have said to one of the Mystery devotees that surely crossed his path.
In the end I isolated several radically new ideas in Jesus’ message that found no parallels in the other religions of his day. In some cases these ideas didn’t survive very long in the young Church. Here they are, as I see them:
The first two hundred years of the Church were violent and chaotic, and the records are conflicting. Many stories lie outside the scope of the Bible. I believe that there’s room to question traditional understandings of the Church’s message–and to question the way the Church has interpreted the words of Christ.
But don’t take my word for it: look for yourself! If there’s a mystery, it’s hiding in plain sight.
“Follow your folly!” That’s the traditional slogan of Tour de Fat, New Belgium Brewing Company’s annual Labor Day weekend bike extravaganza in Fort Collins (I’m guessing the name is borrowed from their Fat Tire Golden Ale). For those of you who don’t follow such things, Tour de Fat is billed as a Halloween-like costume extravaganza–on bicycles–with beer, bands and fun, all hosted by New Belgium Brewing Company.
Its overall purpose, apart from fun, is to encourage muscle-powered (as opposed to gas-powered) transport. All proceeds go to ecological and sustainability non-profits.
Not being a CSU student, or a cyclist, or actually living in Fort Collins for several years, I didn’t pay much attention to Tour de Fat. But for the last couple of years I’ve been living near the city park where much of the craziness takes place. I suspect that its huge local success is partly due to CSU and the fact that Tour de Fat falls early enough in the academic year not to be overshadowed by academic pressures, but I think half of Fort Collins must turn out as well.
Everything from skateboards to unicycles and tall bikes crowd the streets, ridden by a truly bizarre assortment of contestants (yes, there are contests, too). My personal favorites in last year’s bicycle parade were the bucket-helmed bike jouster and the bearded senior on a yellow glider bike. But as soon as I say that, I remember the rolling occasional table with human lamp and the infinite variety of cross-dressing ballerinas and fairies. Everyone wears a smile and a good time is had by all.
Except perhaps for some of my more conservative Christian neighbors. I’m not sure exactly what sets them off about the Tour de Fat. Maybe it’s the beer, or the irreverent humor, or the amount of bare skin, or even the fun–but when I commented on the festival atmosphere, I felt like one of those cartoon characters bent backwards by the gale force of someone’s anger. I distinctly heard the words “pagan,” “heathen,” “godless,” “perverts,” and “shameless,” along with a predictable flow of tedious filler. I wriggled away as quickly as possible, making soothing noises as I went. They weren’t inviting dialogue.
Our encounter set me wondering, and not for the first time: How is it that Christianity so often takes on the sour and condemnatory face of believers like these? Where did it begin? It was certainly with us by the time of the Puritans. And let’s not forget the Inquisition. Or the Albigensian Crusades. Or even the early Church Councils that declared minority beliefs to be heresy. How did intolerance overwhelm the good news of God’s love for all people?
I thank God for Pope Francis whenever I think of him, although I’m not Catholic. His all-embracing love for humanity is a stream of living water in a thirsty land, even if I don’t agree with everything he says. Hate has taken root in too many of our churches: hate of the Other, of those unlike ourselves. This is the same hate that drove Nazi Germany, Bosnian and Cambodian genocide, and still drives the appalling atrocities of ISIS. I’m not sure that there is much qualitative difference between one person’s hate and another’s: there is degree, and opportunity, and restraint or incitement, but the root emotion is the same. None of us is altogether free of it.
A mirror might be a useful devotional tool as we consider Jesus’ warning that a hate-driven insult is as cruel as murder. There may be a difference in degree, but not in essence.
In the days before Yeshua’s Cat was written, before the wildfire scorched our land, I was exploring the changes that had carried humanity forward in time from the old Earth-based cultures of the Stone Age, through the violent upheavals of the late Bronze Age, and into the time of the Roman Empire. The planned lectures and workshops vanished in the wildfire’s smoke, but something else emerged. I realized that without the art of these ancient peoples we would understand almost nothing about them. So where was the art of the early church? How had my education in early Christian history managed to focus so entirely on words? As a result, I turned to the internet and the local university library and began to search for the visual language of the early Church. (In case you’d like to explore on your own, Picturing the Bible by Jeffrey Spier is a good place to start.)
For much of the mid-20th century, common wisdom dismissed the “search for the historical Jesus” as a groundless hope, a fantasy for the unrealistic. But although we may never see a portrait of the flesh and blood man Jesus, the search has proved far from “groundless”: in our time the Earth herself has been yielding up the voices and visions of Jesus’ earliest followers with increasing frequency.
Anyone who visits Rome today steps into a buzzing archaeological hive. This in itself isn’t so strange; after all, many of Rome’s greatest attractions were literally unearthed from its ancient past. What fascinates me is how these ruins emerge. They aren’t turned up by a farmer’s plow, or weathered out of an eroding riverbank, but excavated from beneath the city’s basements. Apparently, Rome buried itself. And the same can be said of Jerusalem, or almost any other Mediterranean capital.* In Rome, for example, the twelfth-century Basilica of San Clemente that still stands today used the walls of the fourth-century San Clemente as foundations. This earlier church rose on top of a first-century mansion. Stairs of ever-increasing age, exposed in recent excavations, descend from the sunlit world down through the virtually intact fourth-century church and into the bowels of ancient Rome. There visitors can walk along a first-century Roman alleyway and explore a now-subterranean apartment building adjacent to the walls of the mansion used as an early Christian meeting place. And under it all lies the rubble of Rome’s great fire of 64 CE.
Canyons carved into the human past are literally opening at our feet along the Roman streets. We can almost believe we hear the slap of sandaled feet two thousand years dead. Anything seems possible. The past walks with us in ways we never imagined. Beneath the many strata of Roman civilization lies tuff, or hardened volcanic ash. Tuff is relatively soft until exposed to air, and is ideal for tunneling. This Roman bedrock made possible the creation of the lowest levels of all Roman ruins, the catacombs. As long as sufficient structural support was left in place, there was almost no limit to the number and extent of these labyrinthine burial chambers.
Although the most famous are Christian, catacombs existed before the early church period, and provided burial space well into the Common Era for those of many different religions. Their painted burial chambers offer us some of the earliest glimpses into the faith of Christian believers, perhaps even back to the middle of the first century.
Visual art as a way of communicating our experience of the world is always personal, and far more powerful than words. Art strikes human depths directly. When a person chooses images to express the soul’s deepest yearnings in the face of death, non-essentials fall away. The heart chooses whatever makes life livable, hope possible. When we look at funerary art, we meet human beings as they turn their faces toward the mystery of life moving into death. This mystery is what we find in the catacombs.
So why are these earliest of Christian testimonies so little known? Why have these painted gospels made so little impact on how Christians understand their faith today? Perhaps it is because our own worldviews get in the way. So an American tourist in Rome snaps a photo of Nike (Winged Victory), and calls her a Christian angel. Another sees a faded catacomb painting of Hercules with the three-headed dog Cerberus and identifies him as the Good Shepherd (with peculiar sheep). We see what we expect to see, squeezing everything into familiar molds. Or perhaps most people just haven’t had the chance yet to truly experience these painted gospels for themselves.
Early Christians chose dramatic images of Jesus and the Old Testament when they painted their tombs. Those appearing most frequently in the 3rd century and earlier are below:.
Jesus the Good Shepherd, who cared unceasingly for his flock:
Jesus the miracle-worker, who healed the sick, raised the dead, and controlled the elements:
Jesus the wise teacher:
Jonah’s sojourn in and emergence from the fish’s belly:
Daniel’s deliverance from the lions:
The three young men protected from the fiery furnace:
Early Christians also painted images of themselves on tomb walls, using two motifs more often than others: women and men with arms raised in prayer and praise; and small groups of Christians gathered around shared ritual meals.
The paintings in the house church at Dura Europos in Syria (dating from about 230-250 CE) are the only Christian images of similar age that have been discovered. The paintings there depict the good shepherd, Jesus’ miracles, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the women at the tomb, as well as Old Testament scenes. Also like the catacombs, they portrayed contemporary believers in positions of praise (orants).
No crucifixes, no suffering martyrs, no images of sacrifice appeared in the early years. These came at least 500 years later, with the developing doctrines of the church.
But what does all this have to do with people like us, living two thousand years later? What impact might it have? Let me paint you a picture with words.
The Christian faith whispering from the dark walls of the catacombs shows us a young man of their own culture–robed, beardless, often holding a wand in his hand–reaching out with compassion and power to touch and heal the human pain around him. He stops the flow of menstrual blood that has made a woman ritually unclean for years. He commands death to release the dead Lazarus, and death yields to him. He sits as a teacher in a circle of disciples, speaking words of life. A strong man with bare legs, he stands among a flock of sheep, carrying a lamb across his shoulders. He betrays no weariness or impatience, only watchful care.
The faith pictured here is in a loving, powerful, and wise man sent from God to point the way and guide his people. They relied on his healing power, his love, and his commitment to their well-being. His God-given power was stronger than death, stronger than the destructive powers of nature, and stronger than human malice.
The believers in these painted gospels were neither theologically complex nor concerned with church structure. Women appeared in positions of leadership as often as did men. No canon of scripture had yet been established, although Paul’s letters were circulating among believers by the 50’s–when there were already growing Christian communities in Rome. Church hierarchy was only a spreading shadow on the horizon, and authority was fluid. What we now consider to be the four gospels were written between 70 and 100 CE, and did not become authoritative until much later. Communities of Christians followed their own personal experience and oral traditions, and suffered at the whim of Roman emperors.
By the third and fourth centuries, the increasingly hierarchical church forcibly silenced dissenting voices. Orthodoxy narrowed to a fine line. A few men concentrated all the power in their own hands. Congregations became sheep in ways they had never anticipated in the early years, and their shepherds were not always good. Too often fear, shame, and guilt discouraged the sheep from straying. Bloody sacrifice–Jesus’ own, and that of the martyrs–became a cornerstone of church doctrine where it had never been before. Bishops formulated creeds, damning those who did not confess Jesus in precisely their words–along with all followers of other faiths. The groundwork was laid for the Crusades and the Inquisition.
Like the Romans buried Rome, the church buried itself. But unlike Rome, what the church buried they rarely considered fit to use for new foundations. Whether these developments, and those that have followed in the centuries since, have anything at all to do with the message of Jesus of Nazareth is a question more and more people are asking today. In the end each of us may need to dig through the rubble of time and consciousness to find our own buried treasure. But one thing seems clear: the treasure is there. Perhaps our perceptions are at fault.
* The Wohl Museum of Archaeology in Jerusalem has excavated similar subterranean houses of the Herodian period from the hillside overlooking the Temple Mount. Although currently the museum has no website of its own, many pictures of their discoveries are available online . . . .