Category Archives: Jesus of Nazareth

How Cat Born to the Purple Began

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Readers are always asking me how I get the ideas for my books, and I’m usually at a loss for answers. So with Cat Born to the Purple, I tried to notice right along how the ideas developed. Now I offer you a small window into the earliest beginnings of Purple.

When I introduced Purple’s main character, Eliana, in The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat, I hadn’t planned on writing anything else about her, much less a continuing series of Yeshua’s Cats books! But I did write more books, and Eliana turned out to be one of those characters who set up shop in the back of my mind, insistently hammering at my dreams and thoughts until I allowed her to tell her story: Cat Born to the Purple is her tale.

But before I could tell her story, I had to figure out what her family history might have been, and what circumstances could possibly have left her, a young woman barely more than a child, stoned and near death in the hills of Galilee near Sepphoris. I knew that she was going to be an exceptionally fine weaver and embroiderer, which meant that she probably came from a family that worked with textiles, most likely from one of the semi-professional family workshops found in sizeable towns like Sepphoris.

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But her wrongful stoning suggested that she’d had no real family to protect her. How could that have happened? Jewish women of merchant status always had male relatives from their birth-families hovering in the background somewhere, prepared to protect them from abuse. I started reading everything I could find about the area around Sepphoris during the time of Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas, since Eliana would have been born around 12 CE.

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Herod the Great’s port at Caesarea Maritima, 10 BCE
Reconstruction of Sepphoris Dionysos mansion
Reconstruction of Sepphoris Dionysos mansion

Scholars have been wrangling for years over whether the Sepphoris of Yeshua’s youth and adult years was primarily Jewish, Greco-Roman, or a mixture of the two. The dust is finally beginning to settle in that argument, leaving what seems to be a clear picture of Sepphoris—along with most of the rest of the Galilee—as predominantly Jewish in population and culture during the early-to-middle 1st C CE. The recently discovered Greco-Roman palaces of Sepphoris came considerably later.

 

Remains of early 1st C Sepphoris
Remains of early 1st C Sepphoris

Almost nothing remains of the mid-1st C city, which would have been almost entirely Jewish. During Yeshua’s lifetime Sepphoris was a regional market and civic center—Herod Antipas’ Galilean capital until he built a new capital at Tiberius around 20 CE. Sepphoris was a large Jewish town for its time and place, but neither Roman in culture, nor heavily gentile.

 

 

The most dramatic event in Sepphoris’ history during that early period came soon after Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE, when a band of Jewish dissidents and townspeople overwhelmed the city guard and raided the treasury. Rome’s reprisal was swift and cruel. The rebels were crucified along the highways, and most of Sepphoris’ citizens were sold into slavery at Acco. Herod Antipas rebuilt and fortified the city to some extent before moving on to Tiberius, but he didn’t create the wealthy Greco-Roman Sepphoris whose ruins have been excavated in recent years.

Artist's Reconstruction of Tiberius
Artist’s Reconstruction of Tiberius

So with this regional history in mind, Eliana’s own family history began to fall into place for me. The timing of Eliana’s birth could easily have placed her grandparents in Sepphoris as weavers and merchants when the city’s residents were sold into slavery by the Romans in 4 BCE. Only their young daughter Sarah—Eliana’s mother—perhaps eight years old at the time, managed to escape. Terrified and confused, the homeless child was taken in by a kindly woman from Shikhin, a neighboring village of about 500 people. Archaeologists recently discovered the ruins of Shikhin only a mile northwest of Sepphoris, just off the main highway connecting Acco and Sepphoris. The Via Maris, the major Roman road that followed Israel’s coastal plain along the Mediterranean Sea, intersected the Acco-Sepphoris road nearby, placing both Sepphoris and Shikhin at a major crossroads.

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The low hills of Shikhin
Shikhin pottery fragments
Shikhin pottery fragments

Archaeologists had long searched for the location of Shikhin, known by reputation as a village that manufactured everyday pottery found in archaeological sites all across Israel. Rabbis of the early Roman period even used Shikhin storage jars as their standard for liquid measure. Shikhin’s period of greatest productivity probably began sometime in the late 1st C BCE and increased through the early Roman period. They were known for strong, fire resistant pottery made from black clay: particularly amphorae (storage jars) and small clay lamps, but also jugs, kraters, cooking pots, and bowls. Archaeologists guess that Shikhin’s potters may have made common cause with wine and oil merchants and sold their pots already filled.

 

Recent excavations at Shikhin have uncovered cisterns, pits, potters’ wheels, kilns, and large numbers of discarded pieces of pottery damaged in firing, indicating a significant manufacturing area. The site was abandoned around the time of the great earthquake of 363 CE.

Shikhin amphora, potsherds, lamps, potter's wheel fragment, juglet
Shikhin amphora, potsherds, lamps, potter’s wheel fragment, juglet

Now the story was beginning to take shape in my mind. As a refugee child in a time of chaos, Sarah’s unofficial adoption by a family working at a craft totally unlike her family’s own guaranteed her separation from any extended family who might have survived the upheavals at Sepphoris. She was simply a child working beside her adopted family making pots. Sarah eventually married the potters’ only son and taught her daughter Eliana the skills of a potter. But even though Sarah had lost her parents at a young age, I imagined that she would never have forgotten the weaving and embroidery skills she must have learned at her mother’s knee–which would probably have been valued by her adopted family. These skills she passed on to Eliana as well, along with an innate gift for working with textiles.

Sleeveband from 3rd C CE Mediterranean textile
Sleeveband from 3rd C CE Mediterranean textile
Old brick kilns in Spain
Old brick kilns in Spain

But for Eliana to be without family when Yeshua found her, both her parents must have been dead already. After learning what I could about the manufacture of ancient Palestinian pottery, I decided that her parents might have died together in a fire caused by a collapsing kiln during a minor earthquake (more on that in another post). So Eliana was indeed left alone in the world, a young bride without anyone but treacherous and greedy in-laws to care for her. The complex system of Jewish kin relationships protecting vulnerable women had failed her. Yeshua’s assumption of just such a situation led him to place Eliana with his friend Eli in Cana—which is where Cat Born to the Purple truly begins.

In the end, the unique possibilities presented by 1st C Israel’s culture came together to create the backstory of Eliana’s life, thus laying the groundwork for the rest of the book. Research can be a wonderful thing!

 

 

 

 

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A Christmas Prayer for 2016

"A Christmas Prayer," by C. L. Francisco (see at bottom for explanation)
“A Christmas Prayer,” by C. L. Francisco (see at bottom for explanation)

When I want to focus my prayer over time and through all my senses I create prayer as art–in my intent, in my  praying, and in my prayer’s final emergence into the world. So here is the embodiment of the prayers I’ve been praying during an extended retreat for the last week or so, as I’ve grieved and prayed for the healing of the inhumanity I see steadily emerging in the patterns of our nation’s new administration. I believe that the reality that is taking shape there honors neither America’s historic democracy nor the Christian faith.

“A Christmas Prayer” prays that the incomprehensible divine love we celebrate at the Christmas season will fill all our hearts, from the smallest child to the nation’s leaders, and open our eyes to the wideness of God’s mercy, which encompasses the whole of Creation.

I, too, feel the times growing harder; the American dream seems to be slipping through our fingers. But I don’t understand how so many of America’s Christians could have gotten so muddled in their distress. How could we forget that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”?

We must hold to these and other words that have shaped our faith:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”!

“What does the Lord require of you but to do do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Jesus did not model the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” by narrowing the definition of “neighbor” to those whose race, language, skin color, birth country, and beliefs were identical to his own.

I grieve for us as a nation.

“The Scapegoat,” by Wm Holman Hunt
“The Scapegoat,” by Wm Holman Hunt

We have stumbled and fallen at the 3rd temptation where Yeshua stood firm: we have grasped for temporal power. These words are from Yeshua’s Cat describing his final temptation in the wilderness:

There was silence for a time. Then ben Adamah’s eyes cleared, he saw me watching, and he smiled. Now he was looking at a definite place, somewhere to the right of where I stood (my fur was bristling, and I was ready to spring away at any moment. Did I see something moving there in the moonless dark?).

“Oh, you evil fool,” the son of Earth laughed, “you have misjudged your game tonight! I have seen too many good men corrupted by even a little of that power to fall into its snare. The power I seek is the power to heal body and soul, the power of one who walks unnoticed among many, seeking the good of all: the power that binds creation together, not a power that consumes it. Burning through my heart is a power that rejects you and all you offer. I will have none of your thrones, your palaces, or your rich robes. No man, woman, or child will ever grovel before me in fear! Get out of my sight, corrupter of innocence. You have no place here.”

The night grew quiet then, the tension vanishing on a slight breeze. Whatever had been happening was finished.

“Come, curl up beside me, little mother,” ben Adamah said softly. “My vigil is over for tonight. It’s time to sleep.”

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For those of you with a curious turn of mind, I’ll explain a bit of what’s going on in this digital mosaic. The overall pattern is based on the south rose window at Notre Dame of Paris. Literally thousands of tiny pieces of layers were combined to complete the whole.

  • At the very center is a spiral galaxy from the Hubble series, with a star superimposed, also from Hubble, and a close up of Mary and the baby Jesus from William Holman Hunt’s “The Triumph of the Innocents.”
  • Around the central image is a circle of 12 identical panels of the “Tree of Jesse” from a Chartres Cathedral window. The, tree, or root, of Jesse–Jesus’ human lineage (from the prophet Isaiah)–is often called the Tree of Life.
  • The round rose-window shapes in the next ring are 24 identical images of grape vines from another Notre Dame rose window, pieced together into rings.
  • The next circle out from the center is composed of elders from traditions all over the world, including Pope Francis, an Orthodox bishop, Rev. Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and many others from cultures great and small.
  • Behind each elder’s head is a plain aquamarine stained glass circle.
  • Above these circles are hands of different colors, each reaching out to help others and to the One in prayer.
  • Beyond the ring of hands are round stained glass windows framing the faces of ordinary people from ethnic groups around the world.
  • Interspersed between these portrait circles are small stained glass windows from Notre Dame de la Croix.
  • Around the outer edge of the circle are flowers from blossoming trees holding the faces of the world’s children, overlain with translucent spring beech leaves.
  • From behind each blossom the Bethlehem star shines out.
  • Throughout the whole circle the branches of the tree of life weave in and out of the pattern.
  • And overall, a rainbow of stained-glass light colors all the shapes beneath it, just as the One’s love embraces all Creation.

I wish you all a blessed Thanksgiving and Christmas, filled with gratitude for our many blessings, and with prayers for our leaders’ wisdom.

 

 

 

 

Cat Born to the Purple’s first review!

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Coming Nov 1st!

 

Here’s an excerpt from Midwest Book Review’s Senior Reviewer Diane Donovan:

“Cat Born to the Purple is one of the most powerful accounts of Biblical times in Christian literature! It’s rare to find the fourth book of a series just as gripping a read as its predecessors, and equally extraordinary to find such an addition both a stand-alone achievement and an impressive expansion of themes presented in prior books. A truly unique ‘voice’!

Midwest

 

 

 

Read the complete review here.

 

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Paul and the Damascus Wall

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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.

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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.”

Hippos East Gate
Hippos East Gate
Model of Scythopolis
Model of Scythopolis

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.

Structure of a Roman Wall/Arch
Structure of a Roman Wall/Arch

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.

Bab Kisan, traditional site of Paul's escape
Bab Kisan, traditional site of Paul’s escape, mainly medieval stonework

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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Cats of Rekem chosen as one of IndieReader’s Best of 2015!

 

Exciting news for The Cats of Rekem!

IndieReader has selected The Cats of Rekem as one of the

Best Self-Published Books of 2015!

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To check out all of IndieReader’s top picks, click here.

 

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Rave reviews for The Cats of Rekem!

 

The first 3 reviews are in for The Cats of Rekem!

 

Indie_5“The Cats of Rekem is an intriguing and beautifully written consideration of the life of Jesus and the meaning of his teachings, offered from a novel perspective. The writing is poetic and lush, with moments of tender emotion, spiritual ecstasy and sorrow, enlivened by touches of humor . . . 5 stars!”

IndieReader

 

SPR-WIdget-4Half“The Cats of Rekem is a wonderful addition to historical fiction . . . a fascinating interpretation of Jesus, his life, and how he impacted those around him . . . clever and magical . . . well-balanced with a twist . . . a powerful lesson for today! 4 1/2 stars!”

Self Publishing Review

 

Midwest“The Cats of Rekem represents spiritual fantasy at its best . . .brimming with flavor . . . the feel of the times springs to life . . . scintillatingly haunting . . . Christian fantasy readers will find it a delightful adventure!”

                                    — Midwest Book Review

 

Read the full reviews HERE.

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The Acts of John, a Gnostic gospel

 

“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.

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St Ignatius of Antioch, Enemy of Docetism
St Ignatius of Antioch, Enemy of Docetism

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.

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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.”
“Amen.”
“I would be saved, and I would save.”
“Amen.”
“I would be freed, and I would free.”
“Amen.”
“I would be wounded, and I would wound.”
“Amen.”
“I would be born, and I would give birth.”
“Amen.”
“I would eat, and I would be eaten.”
“Amen.”
“I would hear, and I would be heard.”
“Amen.”
“I would be thought of, being wholly thought.”
“Amen.”
“I would be washed, and I would wash.”
“Amen.”
“Grace dances. I would pipe; dance, all of you.”
“Amen.”
“I would mourn: lament, all of you.”
“Amen . . .”
“The Whole on high takes part in our dancing.”
“Amen.”
“Whoever does not dance cannot understand what is coming to pass.”
“Amen.”
“I would flee, and I would stay.”
“Amen.”
“I would adorn, and I would be adorned.”
“Amen.”
“I would be united, and I would unite.”
“Amen . . .”
“A lamp am I to you who behold me.”
“Amen.”
“A mirror am I to you who perceive me.”
“Amen.”
“A door am I to you who knock at me.”
“Amen.”
“A way am I to you a wanderer . . . “

Picasso, "Dance of Youth"
Picasso, “Dance of Youth”

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.

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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.

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Photo from thefreedomexperiment.com

 

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New: The Cats of Rekem

 

 

Temple of Winged Lions, photo TWLCRM
Temple of Winged Lions, photo TWLCRM

The Yeshua’s Cats website has a new page today: the prologue and first chapter of The Cats of Rekem, third book in the Yeshua’s Cats series! If all goes well, The Cats of Rekem will be released in the fall of 2015.

Take a look!

Below is a rough sketch of one of the carvings in the Temple of the Winged Lions at Petra:

sketch by CL Francisco
sketch by CL Francisco

 

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Yeshua and the Mystery Religions

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.

Ancient Sumerian gods
Ancient Sumerian gods

 

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Buddha
Zarathustra
Zarathustra

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.

 

 

Prophet Hosea
Prophet Hosea

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.

Early catacomb images of Jesus performing miracles
Early catacomb images of Jesus performing miracles

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.

Serapis-Osiris,Persephone and Hades, Mithras, Dionysus
Serapis-Osiris,Persephone and Hades, Mithras, Dionysus

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.

Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries
Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries

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.

Christ as Sol Invictus, mosaic from 3rd C Vatican grottoes
Christ as Sol Invictus (unconquered sun), mosaic from 3rd C Vatican grottoes

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.

"Christ and the Adulteress," Cranach the Elder
“Christ and the Adulteress,” Cranach the Elder

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:

  • He preached a loving God who sought reconciliation with humanity—not justice, or retribution, or punishment
  • He brought this God into direct relationship with human beings, without priests or organized religions between them and the Deity who loved them
  • He offered his listeners a simple choice: accept God’s love and embrace the freedom growing out of that love, or turn their backs and lose themselves in their own darkness
  • He preached a peaceful, non-violent approach to life
  • He didn’t call for a system of initiates vs outsiders: the thrust of his message was always of mysteries revealed, hardened hearts opening to understanding, and truths simple enough for a child to grasp
  • Perhaps in contrast to the Mysteries, (which were celebrated in darkness) he characterized his message as one of light, revealed in the light of day for all to see
  • Rather than the emotional frenzy common to the Mysteries, where initiates agonized and suffered, imagining themselves suffering with their dying and rising god, he offered his followers a death accomplished, and new life freely given: where such participatory agonies have entered the Church, I suspect they may have come by way of the Mystery Religions, not Yeshua’s words

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.

 

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A Christmas Greeting from Yeshua’s Cats

Last year after publishing The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat, I wrote an additional piece of the story that I sent out in my Christmas newsletter. Here it is again, for the first time in a public posting.

For those of you who have the paperback edition of TGATYC, this new piece would be inserted at the top of page 124, just after “. . . filled with laughter.”  For those of you with the Kindle edition, it’s in Chapter 15, Magdala, just after Mari muses about the nature of the festival of lights, and before Yeshua starts speaking on the last night of the feast.

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“Night Sky Christmas,” C. L. Francisco

One night after everyone had gone to bed I finally asked him. “Are your people celebrating the return of the sun’s warmth when they celebrate their festival of lights, son of Earth?”

            “Yes and no, little mother,” he replied, turning his head and smiling as he opened his eyes. “We measure the years by the seasons of the moon, not by the sun’s path, so none of our holy days takes note of the sun’s movement, not even this one. No, this week we rejoice in events almost 200 years past, when a great man named Judas Maccabeus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem from the pollution of a pagan altar put there by foreign conquerors. Our many lamps call us to remember that the One’s light can dispel even the deepest darkness.”

            He rose to his feet and reached out his arm in invitation, so I leapt to his shoulder, wrapping my tail around his neck. Together we walked out under the winter sky and stood on the hill, watching the stars touch the great sea with their cold fire.

            “Yet, little leopard,” he continued as if he had never paused, “you are right when you wonder if we are also welcoming the sun’s return. Just as stars grow brighter in the long nights, each light that burns in winter’s darkness whispers of that hope. Together with all Earth’s children, our hearts grow full when we see the sun begin its long journey back to the heights of heaven. This too reminds us of the One’s faithfulness.”

            I curled around his neck more closely to dispel the night’s chill, but I said nothing. I only purred with pleasure at his closeness. I sensed that words still lay unspoken in his heart.

            “Sweet Mari, my mother told me that I was born on a night like this, when the stars danced in a black sky, and the breath of humans and beasts alike clouded vision with their brief mist. Joy filled the night and sang in the heavens at the wonder of my coming into the world. All things were made new under that sky, she said.”

            I rubbed my whiskers against his cheek, and he continued.

            “I can almost hear the heavens singing on such nights. The One’s face shimmers behind the host of stars like a distant oasis in the heat of a desert’s summer day. And yet the chill of a winter night and the searing heat of the desert’s noon both lie quiet in the hollow of his hand.

“As do you and I.”

 

"Shepherds' Star," C. L. Francisco
“Shepherds’ Star,” C. L. Francisco

 

May you all have a blessed Christmas!