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A Prophet Without Honor

Human nature has changed little since ancient times. Visiting the Akhenaten exhibit at LACMA a few years back, I found a letter written to the pharoah's mother complaining of the stinginess of her son to be startlingly modern: "gold is like sand in your country" -- so what gives with the cheap gifts?

Same with the concept that "a prophet is without honor in his own land." No one likes a smartypants, the guy who can say "I told you so," for a variety of reasons including the possible insufferability of such folk. Yet in retrospect, we presume we alone would have stood by such personages because they are now admired in their absence. In reality, only a tiny few would have remained true by the time the cock crowed.

It's part of how religions are formed, too. No one is impressed with contemporaneous events or persons, so stories harkening to great antiquity are generated to romanticize and elaborate, twisting real or imagined events to serve present purposes. We see this clearly with the more recent and less established creations: the Book of Mormon, Gardnerian Wicca, the Golden Dawn, Hermes Trismegistus and so on. Yet we are afraid to apply similar critique of the more established faiths. But all were young once, so it behooves us to investigate not only to discover the truth about religion but also the truth about ourselves, our nature, our needs.

In The Bible Unearthed, and their subsequent volume David and Solomon, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have devastated many of the myths that comprise the early volumes of the Bible and place it in historical context thanks to advances in modern archaeology. Contrary to popular belief, the earliest parts of the Bible were not written down until the 7th Century BCE and relate stories that either could not have happened or were wildly exaggerated. Moreover, closer examination of those stories which conflict internally reveal how different political realities re-molded legends to support changed circumstances and rewrite earlier prophesies unfulfilled. I won't spoil the surprises and the individual stories are not so important for my point here.

The bottom line is all religions start out with largely imaginative and purportedly ancient origin stories. That's the only way they can get traction. Words are put into prophets' mouths retrospectively both to give them the gift that only hindsight can give and to shape prophecy to flatter existing elites. While true art, folk tales and great spiritual teachings may also be incorporated into founding texts, the packaging is a product of deliberate manipulation, editing and re-editing over time, as needed. As Bill Hicks famously parodied: "'I think what God meant to say…' I have never been that confident."

But without the stamp of antiquity, real or imagined, humans generally do not resonate spiritually regardless of the quality of the material. Without the aura of a magically distant time, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the ability to romanticize or demonize events and people diminishes in direct proportion to the likelihood we could have known or been around same. Religions always start with a backstory you can't fact check. That's just human nature.

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