Monday, December 15, 2014

Dreaming of a White Santa

Christmas has the incredible ability to entice seemingly normal people to heights of stupidity only matched the rest of the year by members of Congress.  Mostly recently, Megyn Kelly of Fox News exposed the breathtaking depth of her ignorance by opining that Santa Claus was white.

No, Megyn, Santa Claus isn’t white or black; he’s a Norse god transposed into a Christian saint and turned human size through an artist’s imagination and as a result of a lengthy ad campaign.

In fact, Christmas was not a December preoccupation until Santa Claus showed up.  He really is the reason for the season.  Early Church fathers rejected celebrating Jesus’ birthday, noting the human emperors did that, but not biblical patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Moses. 
Icon of St. Nicolaus

Pagans who took over the early Church liked parties, so the holiday became part of the religious calendar in the 4th century.  However, good Protestants, like the Puritans who landed in the New World in 1620, later spurned any festivities. 

However, they were forced to recognize St. Nicholas, who was supposedly martyred in the 5th century.  The Dutch believe that Dec. 5, the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas, the late bishop himself would drop down from heaven, visit good children in their homes and deliver gifts.  The revived cleric was expected to wear his proper religious costume, including a miter hat, and travel on the back of a flying gray horse.  Sometimes, a white donkey provided the ride -- depending where the tale was told.  He also was often accompanied by an elf, called Black Peter, who punished children who had been bad.

Actually, he was the Catholic Church’s way of incorporating gods of other faiths into its belief system. Like Nicholas, the chief Norse god, Odin, rode through the air on a gray horse each fall.  And, both men were known for long, white beards.  Dutch children left bits of straw in their shoes for Nicholas -- today's cookies and milk are certainly more palatable -- while Odin got a sheaf of grain. 

St. Nicholas also has similarities to Thor, the Norse thunder god known for his hefty physique and mighty hammer.  He had a beard, too, a red outfit and was pulled through the air by two goats, Cracker and Gnasher, names later transformed into reindeer names.  Thor also was associated with fire, and, therefore, was thought to use the chimney for entry into a house.

When Protestant England took over New Amsterdam in the 1660s and renamed it New York, the Catholic Dutch children still got their presents on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day.  Protestant English children demanded equal treatment.

That created a quandary: Protestants don’t recognize Catholic saints, even ones who look and act like Odin.  They shifted the gift-giving to their closest holiday, Christmas.  Their children got presents, but nothing else went on.

That changed in the 1822 when a pompous New York scholar named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a little poem to entertain his nine children. Moore didn't even claim authorship of A Visit from St. Nicholas until 15 years after a friend gave it to a distant newspaper and launched him (and his poem) into immortality.

Moore drew his inspiration from a story by author Washington Irving and another, otherwise obscure, poem.  Moore’s wasn’t the austere, dark and forbidding image that scared Dutch children, but a St. Nicholas with “eyes that twinkled, dimples that were merry, cheeks like roses, a broad face, and a little round belly."  He was also very small.  After all, he drove a miniature sleigh pulled by eight "tiny" reindeer.

One poem was not powerful enough to transform the holiday, but the process was underway.  Just five years after Moore wrote his poem, an Episcopal bishop lamented that "the Devil had stolen Christmas and converted it into a day of worldly festivity, shooting and swearing."

While the public may have been warming to Christmas, many churches still rejected -- and still do -- any hint of the holiday festivities we known today.  In 1855, New York newspapers reported that local Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches closed on December 25 because "they do not accept the day as a holy one."

By 1860, with Civil War about to convulse the country, Christmas was recognized in just 18 states.  In England, Queen Victoria set the standard for her people by following the old tradition of giving presents on New Year's Eve. 

Then, cartoonist Thomas Nast further enhanced Santa Claus.  The "father of political cartoonists," Nast began drawing Christmas images in 1863 for Harper's Weekly publication at the request of President Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to cheer the Union troops fighting in the Civil War.  One drawing featured a figure poised over a chimney by the rear of a sled hitched to eight tiny reindeer.

Nast's Santa
In subsequent illustrations, Nast came up with Santa's home at the North Pole, a workshop filled with elves, and his list of all the good and bad children of the world.  In Nast’s artistic hands, Santa was still jolly, but, now, he was ready to illustrate advertising and boost commercialism.  Retailers were not slow to scent this new opportunity.  Santa started to adorn premiums used to hype the sale of gifts now necessary for Christmas.  Stocking sales shot up; so, presumably, did the cost of coal needed to fill the oversized socks of bad kids.

In 1915, White Rock Beverages made Santa its unofficial spokesman by using his image to peddle mineral water and then, in 1923, ginger ale.  Coca-Cola trumped that idea with a mammoth holiday campaign that stretched three decades.  Artist Haddon H. Sundblom, a commercial
Coca-Cola's Santa
illustrator, drew his first Santa portrait for Coca-Cola in 1931.  He eventually generated at least one painting of Santa Claus every year until the series ended in 1964.

Santa’s evolution did not cease there.  Groups like the Salvation Army took to Santa as a benevolent figure.  Volunteers dressed up in red suits to raise money.  Volunteers of America clothed a man in Santa suit in 1902, adding a false beard.  The image was so unusual that the Chicago Daily News recorded the appearance for posterity.

By then, Santa was sporting a wedding ring, too.  Poet Katherine Lee Bates decided to give him a wife.  In 1889, she wrote Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, complete with Mrs. Claus.  The hefty bride didn’t become fixed in popular imagination until 1956 when George Melachrino’s song Mrs. Santa Claus imprinted the image.
Checking his list

What Moore initiated in 1822 has become an icon completely accepted by Americans and the assured vision of a once totally religious holiday.  Santa has become the symbol of all that was right in the world – “Yes, Virginia,” as one newspaper editor could insist less than 80 years after Moore's poem was written, “there is a Santa Claus.”  Today, radio and television stations dutifully report on Christmas Eve that an unknown object has been seen leaving the North Pole in time to make deliveries.

In many ways, Santa is more significant to Christmas than Jesus.  Many cities have banned publicly supported religious images, such as of Jesus and the nativity scene, but pictures of Santa abound without concern.

Of course, Santa is depicted as white.  That’s how Nast and Coca-Cola marketed him, but an imaginary figure has no ethnic background, no matter how much Fox News wants to give him one. 

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book Claims Jesus was Married

Just in time to gouge purses for the holiday season, a recently published book claims that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that the Roman Catholic Church has hidden that “fact.”  The authors, Simcha Jacobovici and Dr. Barrie Wilson, have good credentials and are convinced they have a solid argument. Jacobovici is an award-winning filmmaker; Wilson is a professor of humanities and religious studies at York University,

“Even before our findings, everything -- everything -- pointed to a marriage, and nothing -- nothing -- argued for Jesus' celibacy. The only thing that continues to argue for Jesus' celibacy is 2000 years of theological bullying,” insisted Jacobovici in an on-line essay.

That and historical research.

Let’s look at the “evidence” as outlined in his on-line article touting the book, The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus' Marriage to Mary Magdalene.

First, Jacobovici claims that the Gospels never say Jesus was celibate.  No kidding.  They also don’t say he was married either.  His personal life was of little interest to the writers, who focused more on imagining his ministry and creating  quotes. 

Then, Jacobovici cites the Gospels’ claim that Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus’ body after death.  He says that only a wife would do that.  However, as he and Wilson know fully well, the texts are not an accurate depiction of Jesus’ life.  They are simply the beliefs of the authors, a pastiche of quotes from various sources, Old Testament tales and the like.  There’s no proof Jesus was crucified or anointed or anything.

Citing them as a source is like arguing about the composition of the moon by examining tea leaves in the bottom of a cup.

Jacobovici then turns to the Gnostic gospels, texts written by a multifaceted Greek sect that adopted Jesus as a messenger from God.  They insist Jesus was married, but have no more factual validity than the New Testanent.   All of these books were written decades after Jesus died and had already passed into myth.

Having failed miserably on that claim, Jacobovici reports that “the Gospels call Jesus ‘Rabbi’ (Matthew 26:49, Mark 10:51, John 20:16). Rabbis, then as now, are married. If Jesus wasn't married, someone would have noticed.”  Actually, someone would have noticed if Jesus was called a rabbi, since the term was not used as a title of respect until after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., about 40 years after Jesus died.  The use of the term only indicates that the books were written following the destruction of the Temple, when the great sages, known by the title of “Father,” had been annihilated.

Besides, Matthew, Mark and John had no idea how anyone addressed Jesus and simply used a title they were familiar with.  A more plausible option is “master.”

Next, Jacobovici notes that Paul, Christianity’s greatest advocate, advocated celibacy because he came from Tarsus, which had the annual celebration of Attis.  That Greek god was the “good shepherd,” who cut off his tentacles in his wedding night.

From that fact, Jacobovici add that “had Jesus been celibate, Paul would certainly have invoked him as an example when arguing for celibacy. But he doesn't. Never once does Paul argue that Christians should be celibate, because Jesus was celibate. Not once!”

That’s no shock.  Paul does not quote Jesus saying anything.  Not once!   Paul’s vision of Jesus is clearly colored by his awareness of Attis, but Paul has his own ideas about what the his version of Judaism should constitute.  He never uses a quote attributed to Jesus as an example in any of his letters.  Moreover, despite the book’s claims, Paul could not have been Jewish, but was probably a God-fearer, one of a multitude who followed Jewish customs without formally joining the religion.

Accepting the Jewish Jesus as his deity, Paul convinced himself that he would be “saved” with the Jews when the world ended, something he felt incorrectly would be occurring post haste.

Jacobovici then cites a tomb uncovered in Talpiot, just outside of Jerusalem.  In it, archaeologists found 10 limestone coffins (known technically as ossuaries.)  Jacobovici eventually produced a film on the discovery in which he claimed the ossuaries represent the family of Jesus.  Since one was marked by the words “Joshua, son of Jesus,” he insists that “proves” the marriage.

No it doesn’t.  It proves only that a group of people were buried together.  All of the names on the coffins were common in those days.  He knows fully well how easy it is to jump to conclusions, something Christians are apt to do whenever anything is found that might remotely connect to Jesus.  Still, it’s a pretty big leap.

This brings us to the authors’ final point, which is based on a "Lost Gospel."  Cited in the new book’s title, the ancient text dates from the 6th century.  Jacobovici and Wilson decided it preserved traditions from the first century, 500 years earlier.  Maybe, but traditions are not fact.  For example, traditionally, Jews were slaves in Egypt and then escaped under Moses.  Historically, not a shred of evidence has ever turned up to support that scenario.  Everything found so far contradicts it.

There are also many “lost gospels” anyway, not just this one. The New Testament contains only four books deemed orthodox enough.  The others were discarded, but some have been found, including gospels attributed to almost every disciple.

Icon of Joseph of Arimathea
Besides, the old text cited by the authors does not name Jesus, but focuses on Joseph and his wife Aseneth. Jacobovici claims that "Joseph was a stand-in for Jesus” in the community the text was written.  Or not.  After all, many Josephs show up in the Bible.  Jacobovici makes the connection between Joseph and Jesus because of an image of a cross next to Joseph’s name.  However, Joseph of Arimathea is part of the Jesus story and associated with the cross, too.

Aseneth is otherwise unknown.

The authors continue on their merry way by claiming that, in the Lost Gospel, Aseneth is described as living in a tower, which is a “migdal.”  They conflate migdal to “Magdalena,” insisting that Mary Magdalena means “Mary the tower lady.” Nonsense.  Magdala was a thriving city in Jesus’ day, and people were identified by their hometown.  That’s why there’s a Jesus of Nazareth instead of Jesus the preacher or some other option.  Mary Magdalena means “Mary from Magdala.”

Jacobovici concludes that “if our historical sleuthing is correct, this text is a Gospel before the Gospels and we can finally return Jesus to the historical context from which Paul removed him.”

And if it’s not correct?  The book becomes just more evidence of how some historian and his shill will do anything to promote themselves and their half-baked ideas.

By the way, Jesus may have been married.  However, this book and the forthcoming Discovery Science movie based on it are definitely not proof of that.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pitfalls of Faith

Belief can be such a tricky thing.  It can really trap people in a kind of mental quicksand.

For example, my classes at Daytona State College (fall 2014)  debated important topics chosen by the students.  This was an exercise to teach organization and the use of research.  The students chose the usual topics: gun control, abortion and, of course, evolution.

They also took a survey to determine their views before hearing the arguments.  Over half the students answered “yes” to the statement: “Evolution contradicts my religious beliefs, so any proof of evolution has no meaning to me.”

As such, they had simply closed to their minds before any debate could take place. 

That raises a question, however: what is their belief based on?

All of these students are Christian, but their belief is not drawn from anything Jesus said.  Although the theory of evolution dates to ancient Greece, Jesus no doubt never heard of it.  He never comments
on it.  Nor do any of the disciples or Paul, the chief advocate of the new faith. 

Nor does evolution have anything to with Christian theology, which claims that Jesus is God on Earth who died to redeem mankind from a sin caused by the first human.  Evolution is simply extraneous to such teachings.  That’s why the Roman Catholic Church, the world’s largest Christian faith, can accept evolution without a qualm.

Actually, the students could have belonged to any religion.  None care a whit about evolution.  Judaism is a belief in one God who provided laws to one people to share with the rest of the world.  No evolution.  Islam believes that a prophet received revelations from God on how to live.  No evolution there either.  Look at the rest: Shinto involves ancestral worship; Hinduism, the wheel of life; Buddhism, living the right way; and so on.

Evolution never shows up anywhere.

In fact, not a single religion or religious figure discussed evolution until after Charles Darwin published a book in 1859 that explained at least one way that evolution worked – natural selection.  At that point, Christian clerics decided that this scientific discovery somehow violated their non-existent beliefs on the topic.

While the Roman Catholic Church has given up that nonsense, other Christian sects obviously have not.  They are still inculcating young people to ignore decades of research and study – which have developed in Al Gore’s felicitous term, “an inconvenient truth” – as if somehow lack of knowledge is the base of belief.

What kind of belief is that?  Doesn’t belief have to be based on something?

Actually, the students exhibited only a belief in a book, the Bible.  Evolution also doesn’t show up there.  However, clerics happily infer that since God created everything, as described in the book, that nothing evolved.  They just have to look around to see that’s nonsense.  
In my classes, for example, I had Asian, European and African students. They didn’t look the same.  Obviously, there had to be some changes in human physiognomy since Adam and Eve.  Why not call the process evolution?

I once had Islamic students reject evolution because the process is random.  To them, that means God could not be involved.  But, since they believe God created everything, why couldn’t He create a random process?  After all, the evidence is visually available simply by looking at human differences among people even when they share cultural and ethnic backgrounds. 
In essence, my students, and many others, are creating an idol they call “belief” and worshiping it without the slightest regard to the wealth of accumulated knowledge. 

That kind of blinded approach to life guarantees limited thinking and definitely helps explain the spreading morass of modern life, where such niceties as logic and common sense have become almost as rare as the mention of evolution in any religion. 

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at