Jesus and Troy

The IliadThe other day, I discovered that a BBC documentary series that I really liked was available online. It is Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War. What I didn’t know before watching the series was that people thought that The Iliad told the story of a real war. And indeed, 150 years ago, it was conventional wisdom that the Trojan War was nothing but myth. Then Heinrich Schliemann started digging and the rest is history. Well, mostly. There are still debates in the academic community. But I think we can reasonably say that there was a great city very much as Homer described it in the place Homer said that was destroyed when Homer claimed. Regardless, the more evidence that has been found, the more it looks like The Illiad is based upon a much earlier poem about the sack of that city.

I can’t help but contrast this to the historical Jesus. That is a much more slippery subject. As time has gone on, it looks less and less like Jesus was a real man. And I say this as one who wants to believe. I don’t mean that I’m a Christian, because as regular readers know, I am certainly not that. But the whole idea of him wandering around Palestine spreading the word and performing miracles (even if they were only stagecraft) is really compelling. What’s more, from a theological perspective, it doesn’t really matter if Jesus was a physical being. Certainly you can read all that Paul wrote without thinking that Jesus actually walked the earth. Although I will admit that most modern day Christians would find the idea hard to stomach, but that is more a reflection of the fact that religions tend to accrete beliefs that have nothing to do with the core of the faith. (And note: this is a big issue between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics claim that the church traditions are the church whereas the Protestants believe they can find the church right there in the Bible. I tend to side with the Catholics on this; just look at the fractured Protestant movement. But I really don’t have a dog in this fight!)

One of the reasons that I question the historicity of Jesus is the sheer volume of apocryphal Gospels. It seems everyone was writing them. And what they show is that the different factions were fighting for their version of the church. To me, it just stands to reason that people would start to say, “Jesus believed this and I know it because he said it.” But even more troubling is the archaeological evidence. The Gospels are filled with places that were populated when they were written, but were not when they are supposed to have taken place. Such anachronisms are of great concern. How can the title character be Jesus of Nazareth when Nazareth didn’t even exist then?

Let me be clear about my position. I don’t particularly have an opinion as to whether Jesus was a real human or not. What I do think is that if there was a real man, he has had so much mythology piled upon him that he has effectively disappeared. It seems to me that books like Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth are fool’s errands. All they really do is try to sift the truth from the myth. And in the end, what is the point? The religion is the religion. You either feel God in it or you don’t.

The Old Testament is very much like The Iliad. In fact, it is now widely believed that Moses is a fictional character. But more to the point, the Old Testament is a collection of stories from pre-history that were finally put down in print. But here we get to a critical difference between scripture and literature: it is all in the mind of the reader. They are both documents of what people were saying and listening to at a particular time. And they are great stories. But when people think they must be literally true, their thinking about them ossifies and they stop appreciating them for the great literary works that they are.

It would be terrible if people today worshiped Zeus and so thought that The Iliad had to be literally true. It is cool that there appears to be an actual war that it was based on and a place that we can visit. But that doesn’t change the pleasures of reading Homer. And the same should be true of the Bible.

Here is the first episode of In Search of the Trojan War. It is much recommended!


Christian apologists often claim that there is no more evidence for the existence of Socrates than there is for the existence of Jesus. That’s true. But skeptics claim that it doesn’t matter. It is not the man we care about but rather his teachings—whoever their actual writer or writers were. I don’t see why the same is not true of Jesus. I guess it’s that whole “fear of death” thing people have. But it’s sad.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Jesus and Troy

  1. Well, as far as I know, there aren’t any governments pimping repressive sexual or pro-corporate fiscal policy based on the claim that Socrates wanted it that way. So that’s one thing.

    Another is that there’s literary consistency in the works attributed to Socrates. The thinking stays the same. There’s little in the Gospels (and, from what I understand, many Biblical scholars think at least half of Paul’s epistles weren’t written by Paul.)

    Not that it matters, but my guess is that the figure of Jesus was created by Gnostics to synthesize Judaism with Greco-Roman-Egyptian death/rebirth worship. Then others published, essentially, fanfic, filling in with stories that conformed to prophecy, and the rest, is, uh, history.

  2. @JMF – According to one academic paper I read, Christianity is really the Hellenization of Judaism. Apparently, there was a lot of that going on: turning old religions into new Greek ones. But I still don’t understand the mechanism and it is just a theory anyway.

    I would argue that the Gospels are fairly consistent. But there are some notable inconsistencies. The Epistles are quite consistent. But they are dripping with Paul’s sexual problems and that has been a curse for the religion ever since.

  3. In a disinterested way the process of religious appropriation is quite interesting. Say, how Catholicism mined European polytheism by introducing the notion of patron saints. There’s not a harvest god and a god for breadbakers and another for beer brewers anymore, but they all have lower-level functionaries who can put your prayers on the top of CEO God’s inbox.

    Seen as cultural curiosities these things are amusing and fascinating. Of course, that involves ignoring the broader meanings of religious colonization, occupying powers manipulating locals for their own ends and such.

    Makes me wonder: what will people 500 years from now (assuming there are any) think of our age? Will they be amused by our collected surviving works that praise the "market" in the same way Elizabethan conservatives debated angels on heads of pins? I don’t have a time machine handy, so I can’t predict.

    Perhaps the far future will see our era as one where a few people decried laissez-faire capitalism, starting a useful movement (like early anti-slavery or anti-segregation failures did.) Maybe they will live in a world where market abuses are controlled, and ignore the history of those who first sought to control them (as our mainstream history ignores the labor movement today; where, exactly, did 8-hour days come from?) Maybe it’ll be a dystopian hellbroth where no history of any kind save the quasi-mythical is permitted or imagined. Who knows.

    What’s the Conrad saying? "Art is long, and life is short." My biggest complaint about mortality is not seeing what happens next. I have no doubt that the people who argue against freewheeling corporate exploitation are either going to win at some point, or be brutally suppressed; eventually, they will be taken seriously, for good or ill. I probably won’t be around to see it, nuts!

    Probably future historians and dramatists will focus on our cars and fast-food franchises and ignore any of our political drama, like Shakespeare lovers pay no attention to Elizabethan court intrigue of the day. That’s my best guess . . .

  4. @JMF – Humans are storytellers, so it is natural to look at the world that way. I share your interest in how the story goes. It’s like our lives are confined to a couple of pages of a book. I hate not finishing books, but when the book is infinitely long, what are you going to do?

    I think that eventually, human thinking will take the lack of free will into account in order to form a society that makes more sense. It makes no more sense to hate a mother who drowns her children than it does a bear that kills a child. We need to see it as the unfortunate result of bad genetics and environment that it is. (That doesn’t mean that we don’t lock up mothers who drown their children.)

    The other thing I believe is that we will come to understand that consciousness itself is a trick. The older I get the clearer it becomes that I don’t exist as a single thing. As a result, I think humans may just calm the fuck down.

    As for the saints in the Catholic Church, I believe they are the reason the church spread so quickly out of Europe. The church had an amazing ability to co-opt local gods and turn them into saints. It’s natural to believe in multiple gods. Judaism was originally polytheistic. See, for example, the first three Commandments.

  5. Now THAT’s a brain-twister. I’m contemplating political history seen from the future; you’re imagining how a better understanding of human nature might render much of our current political thinking moot.

    And I agree. When the inevitable story surfaces of the mother who threw her kids off a bridge comes up, I have to hear, as do we all, co-workers and such exclaiming "that’s just crazy!" Well, exactly, folks. It’s crazy. The brain is lacking something most brains have.

    I suspect that much of this blaming the broken mindset (and its corollary, worshipping the lucky) is a product of our competitive system. I don’t regard our socio-economic system with any respect, so I don’t particularly care what it thinks of me (poor, loser, blah blah.) Most people have internalized its values, so they feel inferior (since most people aren’t "winners" in our society’s estimation.) Accordingly, they feel a need to praise themselves for something. I’m not the mom who threw her kids off the bridge. I’m not the celebrity who takes drugs. For American fundamentalist Christians, this can extend to "I’m not a sinner," which is why they are appalled by gay marriage — it legitimizes a vice they could tell themselves they were noble for avoiding.

    (How often do we hear people proudly proclaiming that "I had three children"? Like that’s something to brag about! Raising three emotionally healthy children takes a tremendous amount of work, and is something to take satisfaction in, but simply having three kids is not.)

    Almost everyone I know needs to think of themselves as a Good Person. I think this is a mental salve used to soothe the pain of our society telling them they are bad, because they are not rich. I am not a Good Person, nor do I need to convince anyone of my GP status. I’m an Average Person, with flaws and amenable qualities, whose stories of being weak/selfish/foolish are generally my best means of ingratiating myself to others.

    This might possibly be the thing about our era that annoys me the most. Morality has been, essentially, eliminated; it means "sexual fidelity" to the poor and has absolutely no relevance to the rich. I just read a sad book about the charitable efforts of Irish rock star Bono, which detailed how his hard work essentially amounts to making wealthy assholes feel noble for marketing schemes that advertise social consciousness and in fact deliver nothing (or make matters worse.)

    If you’re rich, everything you are and anything you do is selfless, while being utterly self-serving. You’re contributing to The Market, which is universally beneficent, all evidence to the contrary negligible. (Makes me miss the Roaring 20’s Carnegie types, who knew they were cruel but defended it on the basis of social Darwinism and at least built parks, museums, etc.) If you’re poor, you’re a failure, and need to bolster your ego by overstating your virtues, at which the rich chortle. Sarah Palin’s biggest laugh line at the 2008 convention here in Saint Paul was deriding Obama as a "community organizer." The crowd roared, both in the Xcel Center and in local bars filled with monstrous ecstatic turdburgers, watching the feed on TV. Only the inferior think that decency towards others matters; the quality folk measure themselves by a higher standard. (Indeed, as many predicted, Obama does, too.)

    Oh, well, I shouldn’t rant on this stuff, it is what it is. I’m tired, however, of seeing perfectly decent people I know and admire becoming defensive about who they are, and extolling their more mundane traits in lieu of their better ones (hard work and consideration for others should be standard, not something to brag about, while wit and an enthusiasm for life’s quirks are things that make the company of others utterly enjoyable.)

    I think I’m channeling Oscar Wilde, here; his case for socialism (the ideal as he understood it, not the latter-day bureaucratic reality) was about enabling people to be more fun, essentially. (The eight-hour advocates had the same goal.) Rich, self-satisfied people are dull, and invert morality. There is something to be said for making self-denying choices, for those of us who can.

    Perhaps the rich are as damaged as the baby-killing mom? I don’t find them interesting enough to know any very well . . . but it’s a possibility.

  6. @JMF – That issue is on my mind a lot. Rather than there being roughly 15% of the adult population un or under employed, wouldn’t it make sense for everyone to simply work less? It is also better for the economic recovery, but that isn’t my main interest. We as culture work too much because we don’t seem to understand what life is without work. Work gives my life meaning, but I suspect people who clean houses for a living could find meaning in more edifying pursuits.

    I think you missed my article on authoritarianism. You should take the test and share it with the rest of us.

    [url=]How Authoritarian Are You?[/url]

    For the record, I don’t blame the assholes any more than I blame the mother murderers. The problem is, we act as though the assholes were somehow better than the mother murderer. I will allow that we don’t normally need to lock up the assholes, but they’re just doing what comes naturally. They are good for one thing: they make me feel a lot better about myself.

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