Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Awaiting angelic intervention

As I write this, I'm waiting for the Rapture (it was supposed to happen on Tuesday, but evidently got postponed a few days), so I figured to while away the time until the holy are bodily assumed into heaven and the rest of us slobs get visited by the Four Apocalyptic Horsepersons and the Scarlet Whore of Babylon and the Beast and various other special offers, I'd consider the question of how this stuff got included in the Bible in the first place.

The Book of Revelation is one of the parts of the Bible that some True Believers embrace enthusiastically, while if you ask others, they'll shift in their seats and laugh uncomfortably and mumble something about "symbolic... metaphors... not meant to be taken literally..." and then change the subject.  What's interesting, though, is that this is far from the weirdest piece of writing that was considered to be part of scripture.  Back in the fourth century, there were so many gospels and epistles and books and letters and assorted miscellany that church leaders finally had to hold a series of meetings to try to figure out what was canonical and what wasn't.

So they got together at the Council of Rome (382 C.E.), the Synod of Hippo (393 C.E.), and the Synod of Carthage (397 C.E.), and after that the Bible had something close to its current form.  (Interestingly, the idea that canon was established at the Council of Nicaea in 325 is a misconception; Nicaea had nothing to do with decisions about what was scripture and what wasn't, but was about the nature of the Trinity and how to determine the date for Easter.)  In any case, what's fascinating here is that the church fathers had their work cut out for them, because there were tons of manuscripts to sift through.

And when you start looking through the ones that didn't make the cut -- the ones now labeled "apocrypha" -- you find out that by comparison to some of them, the Book of Revelation comes across as blander than Fun With Dick and Jane.

First, let's consider the Books of Enoch, of which there are three.  1 Enoch especially is a trip, and is also interesting because a lot of what angel enthusiasts chatter on about comes right from there.  You might not know that there are only five angels mentioned by name in the standard Bible -- three good guys, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, and two fallen angels, Lucifer and Abbadon.  That's it.  All the rest come from the apocrypha, or from People Making Shit Up, which even many religious people agree pretty much amounts to the same thing.

Another thing about 1 Enoch you might find entertaining is that this is also where most of the nonsense about the Nephilim comes from.  The Nephilim were created when angels came down to Earth and had lots of sex with human women, and the result was the women giving birth to babies who grew up into giant "men of renown."  The Nephilim get a passing, and rather vague, mention in Genesis 6 and Numbers 13, but 1 Enoch really gives details.  They were "three hundred ells tall" -- that'd be something on the order of two hundred meters -- and given to doing some seriously bad shit:

And they became pregnant, and they bare great giants, whose height was three hundred ells, [and] who consumed all the acquisitions of men.  And when men could no longer sustain them, the giants turned against them and devoured mankind.  And they began to sin against birds, and beasts, and reptiles, and fish, and to devour one another's flesh, and drink the blood.

So that's kind of nasty.  Fortunately, God commanded the unfallen angels -- the ones who hadn't been canoodling with human women -- to do battle with the Nephilim, and the Nephilim lost big time.  They were all cast into the fiery abyss, where they dwelleth lo unto this very day.

Then there's a weird passage about farm animals doing stuff:

And that sheep whose eyes were opened saw that ram, which was amongst the sheep, till it forsook its glory and began to butt those sheep, and trampled upon them, and behaved itself unseemly.  And the Lord of the sheep sent the lamb to another lamb and raised it to being a ram and leader of the sheep instead of that ram which had forsaken its glory...  And I saw that a great sword was given to the sheep, and the sheep proceeded against all the beasts of the field to slay them, and all the beasts and the birds of the heaven fled before their face.

Ha-ha, yeah... *shifts uncomfortably*  Metaphor... um... symbols...

But if you think that's weird, what's even wilder is what ultimately happens to Enoch.  A passage in 3 Enoch tells us that he's brought up to heaven, and transformed into the angel Metatron, in a process that sounds really fucking uncomfortable:

At once my flesh turned to flame, my sinews to blazing fire, my bones to juniper coals, my eyelashes to lightning flashes, my eyeballs to fiery torches, the hairs of my head to hot flames, all my limbs to wings of burning fire, and the substance of my body to blazing fire. On my right— those who cleave flames of fire—on my left—burning brands—round about me swept wind, tempest, and storm; and the roar of earthquake upon earthquake was before and behind me.

So when you think of Metatron, if you picture the kind, avuncular Derek Jacobi in Good Omens or the snide, wry, world-weary Alan Rickman in Dogma, you might want to revise that image.

And this is just the Books of Enoch.  If you want some even wackier stuff, check out the Gospel of Thomas, which recounts the childhood of Jesus and depicts him as some sort of super-powerful spoiled brat.  (Reading it made me wonder if this is where the expression "holy terror" comes from.)  Amongst many other atrocities, at age one Baby Jesus curses another kid and makes him "wither into a corpse." Later he kills a neighbor kid for spilling water he'd drawn up from a well, and offs a different kid for bumping into him.

When the neighbors complain, he strikes them blind.

The general impression is more gangsta rap than it is "holy infant, so tender and mild."

Then there's the Apocalypse of Ezra, in which God has an argument with the prophet Ezra wherein Ezra says that since God created the Apple and the Serpent, he's responsible for humanity becoming sinful, so he can't rightfully punish people for doing bad shit.  Which seems like a legit objection to me.  But God shows Ezra the fiery tortures of hell, and says, basically, "What now, Ezra?  Any other questions?" and Ezra says, "Oh, okay, I see your point" and the book ends with a score of God 1, Ezra 0.

In any case, what strikes me about all this is that when it came time to sift through all the hundreds of manuscripts and decide what was canonical and what wasn't, the decision wasn't made by any kind of holy agency.  It was just a bunch of guys arguing about it and finally whittling the list down by about half to what we have today.  (And there are still disagreements -- that's why the various Orthodox sects, Catholicism, and Protestant denominations all have a slightly different set of books in their bibles.)

Of course, the apologists say the decision was made by people who were divinely motivated.  As the Christian site Got Questions puts it, "There are no 'lost books' of the Bible, or books that were taken out of the Bible, or books missing from the Bible.  Every book that God intended to be in the Bible is in the Bible.  There are many legends and rumors of lost books of the Bible, but the books were not, in fact, lost.  Rather, they were rejected...  These books were not inspired by God."

So that's convenient.  Me, I find the whole thing bizarre and a little mystifying, which I suppose is unsurprising.

Anyhow, here I sit, drinking my coffee and waiting for the Rapture.  By the time y'all read this, it'll either have happened or it won't, so if I get Raptured I won't be around to read your comments.  (Admittedly, this is unlikely given my history, and if there was any doubt in the minds of the Heavenly Judges, the fact that I just wrote this post probably sealed the deal.)  If I'm still here, we'll see what's going on in the world.  My guess is that regardless, there won't be any angelic intervention by Enoch-Metatron or Gangsta Baby Jesus or anyone else, and we'll all just have to keep plodding forward as usual.

But if sheep start running around swinging swords, or whatnot, I'll happily eat my words.


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