Mundane Origins of Holy Things


That should have been the title of this fascinating book: Sacred Origins of Profound Things by Charles Panati, a former science editor of Newsweek magazine. Indeed its subtitle is more descriptive of the book: “The stories behind the rites and rituals of the world’s religions.”

What distinguishes Homo sapiens from other creatures on earth is that it is, to be a bit melodramatic about it, the cosmos reflecting on itself. Modern mankind has developed this capacity in and past the Age of Reason. No longer does modern man take things for granted; he questions these with his faculty of reason, with the tools of science and logic.

“This here is the holy book, revealed by God himself,” and for thousands of years, and most especially during medieval times, people believed it so probably for their own good, since if they didn’t they would have been burned at the stake.
Now, the retort would be, “Oh, yeah?”

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The book’s cover.

If you were referring to the Book of Mormon, you’d be challenged how on earth could Jesus have visited North America and preached the truth to Indians?

If you were referring to the Bible, you’d be challenged by rather simple questions like: Why does the Old Testament uncannily reflect the mores of ancient Middle Eastern tribes, as in the directive in Leviticus 20:13 to kill all homosexuals? A nerdish classmate in high school asked our Biblical teacher: “If it’s the word of God, couldn’t he have left hints or coded messages in the Bible that the world is not flat or that E=MC2, so modern man would find it more credible as a Divine product?

Sacred Origins is on a similar tack but on a less ambitious scale, like tracking down the origins of things most of us—especially in Catholic Philippines—think are prescriptions of, or have come from, the Divine.

A few samplers: Where did that most common religious utterance Amen come from? It is a relic of ancient times when Egyptian religious beliefs were widespread in the Middle East (remember that the Chosen People were liberated from their supposed hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt). The Egyptians’ highest deity then was called Amun. So just as Greeks or Romans would exclaim “By Jove” (or modern man, “Jesus Christ!”), people in the Middle East would explain “By Amun”. That would evolve into the Amen used by the Hebrews and then adopted by Christians up to the modern age.

Other scholars though challenge that explanation, although the alternative they offer isn’t that inspiring. They claim that Amen in ancient Semitic as well as Arabic languages was used in day-to-day conversation meaning truly, with nothing religious about it. In Pilipino that would be either “totoo nga”, or just “oo nga.” Imagine Brother Mike uttering again and again, instead of Amen, “oo nga” in his sermons.

The gesture of prayer, palms joined to form a steeple, has a rather dreadful origin. It is how a prisoner’s hands in ancient times would appear when he was shackled and being checked by his captors. European feudal lords required their vassals to assume the gesture as a sign of loyalty. That easily passed into Christian culture as one’s gesture of obedience to God (or the priest at the altar).

I still remember the time when I was studying at the Capuchin Fathers’ Lourdes School. We were warned sternly that we could not eat meat on Friday, as God forbade it, and to do so was a mortal sin.

This book says this prohibition had a very mundane origin. Faced with a meat shortage and a struggling fish industry, King Edward VI in the 16th century banned the eating of meat on Fridays, a practice Roman Catholics adopted and justified to memorialize Christ’s “sacrifice on the cross.”

The Sunday Mass you go to regularly? Keep in mind the Mass’ peak event when the bells ring as the faithful fall silent, and the priest intones: “This is my body, and this is my blood.” It’s a virtual emulation of ancient rituals of human sacrifice, which mellowed into the Jewish ritual of sacrificing lamb and cattle at the Temple.

Ancient cultures ritually ate the flesh of an admired vanquished enemy or relative to imbibe his qualities. So Catholics at the communion sacrament eat the wafer dipped in wine—the flesh and blood of the Christ. You may be surprised to learn the Catholic dogma isn’t a metaphor nor symbolic language: You are eating the actual body and blood of the Messiah, in a mystery called “transubstantiation”.

Have you ever wondered why Catholic clerics wear soutanes and other robe-like vestments? These, according to Sacred Origins, are relics of that period in history when Christianity broke out as a small a Jewish sect to become the official religion of the most powerful state at that period: the Roman empire in its later stages. Ecclesiastical vestments were actually Romans’ usual attire, tunics with the abundant folds of fabric you’d see in TV series “Rome” and “Spartacus”. But the story doesn’t end there. After the empire fell, fabric became expensive and scarce so ordinary people started to wear close fitting apparel (even that kind that we know now as pants). But the Christian clerics, to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi, continued to wear the fashion of the old Roman Empire.

The big problem with the Holy Scriptures, as we read these today—and so obvious in “Bible-study” soirees—is that these are translations upon translations upon translations from Hebrew and Greek to Latin then to English. (There are more than two dozen translations to English.) Furthermore, during ancient times, before Gutenberg press and Xerox machines, the Holy Scriptures were tediously copied by hand by monks in dark, candle-lit monasteries, so errors were bound to be made in copies of copies of copies.
It is only now that scholars are starting to uncover mistranslations and even insertions passed off as part of the original texts by overzealous monks.

The mistranslation could have even been started by New Testament writers. In the Old Testament, written in Hebrew, the prophet Isaiah 7:14 prophesizes the Messiah: “Behold a young woman shall bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Italics mine)
New Testament writers’ agenda was to project into Jesus’ life the prophecies of the Old Testament, about a Messiah that would restore Israel to its ancient glory. So Matthew 1:23 in Greek (the New Testament’s language) repeated, with a slight change, Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, a virgin shall bring forth a son and they shall call him Emmanuel.”

How did “young woman” become “virgin”? A mistranslation. “Young woman” in Hebrew is alma. The writer of Matthew read Isaiah and instead of alma, used the word parthenos, which however had a narrower meaning: a virgin rather than a young woman. (The Parthenon in Athens was a temple for the goddess Athena Parthenos, “Athena the Virgin.”) The mistranslation is clearly understood, and to use an analogy in Tagalog: Isaiah’s alma is dalaga, which implies but not necessarily means a virgin. But Matthew translated that to the more specific birhen, or rather donselya, from the Spanish doncella.

Catholic scholars of course dispute that explanation. If it would be true, it would mean that more than a thousand years of mind-wracking theologizing to account for a violation of natural laws and tens of thousands of needless deaths (Christians who denied the virgin birth were massacred in medieval times) would have been for naught.

But it isn’t only in Christianity where very mundane mistranslations made a lot of trouble for humanity. Not in Sacred Origins, but one recent scholarly study claims there was a mistranslation from its original Syriac text to Arabic of a particular word in the Muslims’ Koran. The word is hur, a plural meaning “white raisins”, a delicacy in the barren deserts of the Arabian peninsula.

It was mistranslated to the Arabic houris, which means “doe-eyed, ever willing virgins”, 72 of them, who await the believer and especially the martyr for his eternal enjoyment. That interpretation, I hope, is wrong: Suicide bombers all over the world just because of a mistranslation? (Panati, Charles, Sacred Origins of Profound Things, Penguin Books: 1996.) and


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  1. Not all things written in a book are true. So many books contradict each other. It is up to the reader to discern which one holds the truth.

  2. Voice from the Wilderness on

    Many books now with historical analysis of long held beliefs that has enthralled mankind is indeed worth reading for intellectual enlightenment and search for closer to truth. For as borrowing from one passage of the Bible, “truth shall set us free”.

  3. The first time I opened and read the bible, my belief of a supernatural ceased.