Crimes of Passion

imageSo what’s the Passion story, really? It’s difficult to peel the historical layers back to Jesus because the closer you read the scant source material (four Gospels, a few letters of Paul) the more, um, different they seem.

Luckily, smarter people than I got here first. For example, there’s this reconstruction, helpfully color-coded in the style of the Jesus Seminar, based on a tabulation of the work of thirty-four scholars done by Marion Soards. Colors represent “heat” — i.e., a greater number of scholars believing it to be authentic, the redder the words.

There’s also this “tentative reconstruction” by Yarbro Collins (2007). 

Paraphrasing, the “original” probably went something like this:

Jesus goes to Gethsemane and is upset. He can’t sleep and prays while his posse sleeps.

While he’s speaking, Judas comes up and kisses him. Jewish leaders take Jesus away, even as one of his followers (unnamed) cuts off the ear of the chief priest’s servant.

Jesus’ followers all flee, including a naked young man.

There may have been an appearance of some sort in front of Jewish authorities. (The charge isn’t clear: What did Jesus do?) They turn him over to the Roman leader Pilate.

Pilate asks Jesus if he is “King of the Jews,” and Jesus neither confirms nor denies.

Pilate releases a criminal named Barabbas and delivers Jesus to guards to be crucified.

Jesus is mocked by the crowd and brought to Golgotha, where he is given tainted wine and crucified between two other convicts.

On the cross, he is taunted by those who say, “If you’re King of the Jews, come down here.”

It gets eerily dark. Jesus cries out and dies. The curtain of the sanctuary is split.


WWJD #1: The Passion Narrative


Note: We are going through the earliest Christian documents, one by one, to find out for ourselves what they actually say about Jesus. Today we look at the earliest one, which doesn’t exist as a separate doc anymore.

The so-called “Passion Narrative” is a scholarly reconstruction of a hypothetical early document that almost certainly did pre-exist the Gospels, at least in oral form, but has been lost. Like “Q” and the “Sayings Gospel” (both of which we’ll get to), the PN is a ghost doc, a reasonable guess based on the existing Gospel texts. In fact, it represents almost the only episode in Jesus’ life on which all four Gospels agree — or almost agree.

As Mel Gibson told us, Jesus’ “Passion” is the story of his accusation, hearing, sentence and execution. Ouch!

Now it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves of the scholarly consensus that Mark was probably written first, around 65 CE, that Matthew and Luke had Mark in front of them when they wrote, and that John did not use Mark directly — although he obviously had access to some similar oral or written traditions, one of which was . . . the Passion Narrative.

So in reading the Gospels, we don’t really have four independent sources, do we? It’s not like there were four bloggers at the site and we can triangulate (or quadrangulate) the real story from their separate accounts. As scholarly consensus has it, there is only one source — this long-lost so-called “Pre-Markan Passion Narrative.” (BTW the Gospels were almost certainly not written by men or women who knew Jesus personally. Now you know.)

What’s exciting about this earliest story-snippet, though, is precisely how early it would have to have been solidified in the Christian tradition to appear in roughly similar outline in both Mark and John. Because otherwise, Mark/Matthew/Luke (the so-called Synoptic Gospels) and John look like biographies of different people.

So what does this early-early PN tell us about traditions about Jesus? The four accounts have been laid out side by side here. The story has four parts:

(1) The Arrest

(2) Jesus Before the Temple Priests

(3) Jesus Before Pilate

(4) The Cross

To be continued . . .


What Would Jesus Do? Well, friends, it’s been a while and I’m here to report that I still have no idea. As a former history major, however, I can say that for events in the distant past, we are left with our sources — sources, alone. Anything that is not in the plain text of the earliest documents and archaeology is conjecture, speculation, hoo-haw, bunkum, hocus-pocus and legerdemain.

A wonderful site called has a helpful list of all the extant sources for information about/by the early Christian movement with scholars’ best guess at dates written. Since I’ve got a former monk guiding me spiritually these days (don’t ask), and I’m supposed to be reading something like every day — they call this Lectio Divina — it occurred to me to start at the beginning and move on.

What was the very first source? What did it tell us about the human Jesus? What was the second source? What did it say? Perhaps this will get us close to WWJD . . . we’ll see.

So, according to the best scholarly guess, here are the earliest 10 Christian docs and the approximate dates of their “publication”/writing:

45 – Passion Narrative
55 – 1 Thessalonians
55 – Philippians
55 – Galatians
55 – 1 Corinthians
55 – 2 Corinthians
55 – Romans
55 – Philemon
60 – Lost Sayings Gospel Q
65 – Colossians

Pray for Me, Doc!

I remember reading over the years about experiments funded by the mysterious Templeton Foundation that studied whether prayer could really heal. They’re odd experiments, in a way, since no scripture I know of claims anyone who prays can heal, much less at a distance, and no religion I know of has ever claimed prayer-healing proves the existence of God.

The New Testament certainly shows Jesus and (in the Book of Acts) his disciples walking around first-century Palestine healing sick people – usually by touching them, not praying for them, — but these signs are used to reveal the divine nature of Jesus and the Twelve, not everybody else. In fact, Simon Magus’ claim to be a healer in Acts is taken as evidence of evil.

So Christian scripture, at least, very much limits the ability to cure the sick to Jesus and his inner circle.

But there’s an understandable modern impulse to test the God hypothesis in a lab setting, and so we have a series of well-publicized prayer-healing experiments, described by Harvard neurohistorian (coolest job title ever) Anne Harrington in her recent article “The Placebo Effect: What’s Interesting for Scholars of Religion?” in Zygon.

In 1988, a cardiologist at San Francisco General Hospital recruited a group of born-again Christians to pray for coronary patients. There was a control group of patients who were ignored. There was no overall prayer benefit detected in terms of mortality; however, the prayed-for group showed statistically significant improvements in 6 of 26 kinds of complications. Evangelicals site this study as a win for God, but the results were underwhelming.

Ten years later, a double-blind study of AIDS patients, also in San Francisco, was more encouraging. One group was prayed for based on a name and picture, while a control was not. Neither were told. In the end, the prayed-for group had slightly better outcomes than the control. God: a weak 2 points.

However, the best study yet, run by Dr. Herbert “Relaxation Response” Benson and published in 2006 in The American Heart, involving 2,000 patients at six sites, had a surprising outcome.

First, patients who were prayed for did not fare any better than those who were not. Second, a group of patients who were prayed for and told actually did worse than a group who’d been prayed for but kept in the dark.

Benson hypothesized that those who were told their doctors were seeking divine intervention for their coronary condition might have been freaked out.

What have we learned today, girls? Once again, God has evaded detection in the lab. And if you are a doctor and decide to assign a prayer group to cure a seriously ill patient — for God’s sake, don’t tell them!

God on the Brain

We were looking at lab experiments demonstrating the healthful benefits of prayer and meditation. Other, less spiritually-minded researchers have approached religious phenomenon as a kind of pathology, much as Freud did.

In the 19th century, a link was noted between some kinds of epilepsy and religious fervor. This link was studied by Norman Geschwind at Boston’s V.A. Hospital in the 1970s, who claimed temporal lobe epilepsy could cause religious obsession.

A decade later, Canadian researcher Michael Persinger built a “God Helmet” that bombarded the temporal lobes of healthy people with an electrical storm and could fake – he claimed – a “spiritual” feeling. Persinger got a lot of attention for his helmet but an attempt in 2005 in Sweden to duplicate his findings failed. Atheist Richard Dawkins put the helmet on and didn’t feel anything but mild nausea.

Another team at the University of California at San Diego claimed to have identified the “God Spot,” a specific region of the frontal cortex that is overstimulated during religious ecstasy.

Meanwhile, psychiatrist Richard Strassman gained global attention for his claim that many so-called religious phenomenon were caused by dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a hallucinogenic compound occurring naturally in trace amounts in the brain.

And Dan Hamer at the National Cancer Institute inspired cover stories in both Time and Newsweek after isolating a specific gene called VMAT2 that he claimed correlated with “spirituality.” It mediated the production of neurotransmitters related to our moods, although only an atheist would think religion always makes people feel good.

Now we had a “God Gene” to go with the “God Spot.”

Then there was backlash as even committed materialists like Persinger and Hamer realized media were overstating the case. In a New Yorker article, Dr. Jerome Groopman concluded: “To believe that science is a way to decipher the divine, that technology can capture ‘God’s photograph,’ is to deify man’s handiwork.”

One methodological problem, of course, is that most religious people aren’t mystics, and it’s a long pilgrim’s progress from a nun in a tube to explaining a global social movement.

Even as the Dalai Lama himself addressed 14,000 neuroscientists at a conference on the topic of the “Neuroscience of Meditation” in 2006, a different Canadian team found not one but six regions activated by prayer, including the caudate nucleus (memory and love) and the insula (sensations), and concluded: “There is no single God spot, localized uniquely in the temporal lobe of the human brain.”

And one of the team members even compared such experiments to the Victorian pseudo-science of phrenology, which sought to explain behavior using skull shape.

Interestingly, while the researchers may have believed they were explaining God away, some of the nuns involved in the original SPECT scan studies themselves felt the opposite: excited God himself could be seen, at least indirectly.

Who’s right?

This Is Your Brain on God

Happy New Year, Seekers! Welcome to another year of Searching for an Answer to the Ultimate Question.

The Big Banana has proved particularly slippery to locate in a lab, which doesn’t stop people from trying.

So far, lab tests for God have attacked religious phenomena from two flanks – as what William James in his classic Varieties Of Religious Experience called “healthy-minded” and “sick-minded.”

On the former track, studies in the 1960s showed church attendance correlated with better health. That this effect wasn’t due solely to social support was later verified in comparisons of secular vs. religious kibbutzim in Israel.

Also in the 1960s, Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard began to study the “relaxation response,” the physiological benefits of mental states such as prayer and meditation. And a generation later, as brain imaging equipment grew smaller and cheaper and the West rediscovered Tibet, meditating brains (including the Dalai Lama’s) were subject to even greater scrutiny. They were found to have higher baseline levels of activity in the left prefrontal lobe, the brain’s center of attention and well-being.

In addition, practiced meditators were calmer, less easily startled because their “amygdalas are less trigger-happy,” in the words of Harvard neurohistorian Anne Harrington.

Starting at the turn of the millennium, researchers shifted from observing states of relaxation to “explaining” religious phenomenon.

In a well-known experiment conducted in 2001 by a team at the University of Pennsylvania, meditators and nuns were strapped into a jet engine-like machine called a SPECT scanner and injected with radioactive dye at peak moments.

The scans also showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex. More interestingly, there was decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, the region in the top rear of the brain responsible for orienting us in space.

Conclusion: the feelings of “unity” and “oneness” reported by mystics in many religions may be caused by prayer-induced spatial disorientation.

Speculation abounded, with one team of neuroscientists even suggesting that the Christian trinity and the historical evolution of religions mirrored the three parts of the human brain – the brain stem (survival), limbic/hippocampal (emotion), and neocortex. (In the 4th century, Augustine already made a connection between the trinity and a three-part human brain, although he claimed the cause-and-effect flowed the other way: that we mirrored God.)

One of the original SPECT researchers, Andrew Newberg, cautioned in a 2010 interview: “One could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God’s really in the room, but the scan itself doesn’t really show that.”

Next Time: Is God just an epileptic brain lesion?!

More Stark Truth — or Why Early Christian Women Preferred Not to Marry Greco-Roman Dorks

Before we were interrupted by the Little Baby Jesus, we were closing out a monologue on the socio-religious tour-de-force that is Rodney Stark’s 1996 study, “The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.”

So, how did it? To recap, Stark examines religion as a social phenomenon — because he’s a sociologist, yes, but also because he believes conversion itself is a social act. People don’t join new cults because they admire a dogma but rather “to align their religious status with that of their friends and relatives who already belong.” Early Christianity was more like Facebook than an Evangelical Lutheran Church of Minnesota sermon.

In economic terms, religion is a “collectively produced commodity” that gains in value as members give more. High barriers to entry help eliminate “free riders” and encourage members to contribute. “Sacrifice and stigma mitigate the free-rider problems faced by religious groups,” he says. “Commitment is energy.”

Early martyrs — who could become quite famous as a result of their witness — blasted a furious message in the desert sands that Christianity had the very highest value, at least to a few. What more can we give than our lives?

In its first few centuries, the Jesus movement also benefitted from weak and pluralistic pagan religion, which allowed gods to accumulate without demanding real loyalty (except as a political matter). And its primary appeal, Stark argues, would have been to Hellenized Jews stuck between their own tentative Judaism and a spiritually disappointing Greco-Roman culture.

Stark’s silver bullet is his persuasive appeal to common sense. He’s a radical demystifier. Turns out people join groups, including religions, for pretty good reasons: they know people, they’re not otherwise engaged, there aren’t a lot of freeloaders hanging around drinking their coffee.

And — in a fascinating section — Stark shows how the Jesus movement actually had dramatic health benefits. Plagues were frequent in the absurdly crowded, walled cities of the time, as were natural disasters. Drawing on the work of historians William H. McNeill and Hans Zinsser, Stark shows how basic medical care (washing clothes, providing water, pep talks) alone can raise survival rates 30%. Better neighbors, Christians emerged from chaos stronger than pagans, who tended to be self-centered in dark times:

“When disasters struck, the Christians were better able to cope, and this resulted in substantially higher rates of survival.”

Since the 1950s, sociologists such as Anthony F. C. Wallace noted that new religions often emerge from crises, as people watch the vivid failure of what we corporate cogsters call Business As Usual (BAU). Christianity was fresh and had a set of tenets that “made life meaningful even amid sudden and surprising death.”

Then there were the women. Famously, Stark argues that pre-Constantinian Christianity was actually appealing to women. To understand this point, we must ramjet back to the first- and second-century Mediterranean world. Whoosh. With me?

Greco-Roman families didn’t want girls and treated their YY-chromosomed spares to infanticide (something condoned by both Plato and Aristotle). Men in that world “found it difficult to relate to women,” and didn’t want to marry. (Sound familiar?) Fertility declined, as did the percentage of women in the population. Women who did marry became baby mills, which often killed them. Abortion often killed both mother and child.

Now contrast our early Jesus freaks. Like most Jews, they disallowed infanticide and abortion. Girl babies lived, and fewer mothers (also female) died. Giving oneself to Christ as a virgin — that is, staying happily single — was an acceptable life choice. And women have always had more influence on their family’s social life: when a Christian woman married a pagan man, it wasn’t the woman who changed teams.

Over decades, the proportion of women in the Christian population grew. This had a virtuous effect, as Stark, citing the work of Guttentag and Secord (1983), argues that women have more freedom in cultures where they are not a “scarce commodity,” as they were in the Greco-Roman world.

A final note on Stark’s so-called “Rational Choice Theory” of religion, which is described more fully in other works and is baked into “Rise.”

The late Christopher Hitchens once told The Onion he didn’t think Catholics really believed Jesus’ mother was a virgin, and I think he’s right. I’ve a notion it’s a dirty, silent secret of most believers in God (including myself) that there are specific tenets of our particular creed we do not, in fact, believe. We never admit this; but we know it.

I’m sure many Catholics doubt the virgin birth, as I’m sure many Mormons may doubt that a figure named Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith and revealed the location of the gold tablets that have disappeared. Yet it’s still entirely rational for us to join the Catholic (or LDS) Church. Why?

As Stark might say, putting things in the balance, the good outweighs the bad. We sign up for a social network from which we get a lot, and give a lot, and that’s worth more than a whisper of hypocrisy. Right?