Archive for December, 2014

Bethlehem of Galilee

December 30, 2014

Both nativity stories in the New Testament have Jesus of Nazareth being born in the town of Bethlehem and most Christians have believed that the Bethlehem referred to is the small town, not far from Jerusalem, the traditional birthplace of King David. Recently an Israeli archeologist, Dr. Aviram Oshri has argued that this consensus is based on a mistake in geography. As is often the case, he believes that there was more than one town named Bethlehem and that Jesus was born in a Bethlehem in Galilee. I read about Dr. Oshri’s theory in this article at inquisitr.com.

There’s a groundswell of people accepting that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, just not the one we’ve known for years.

The International Business Times is reporting that Israel archaeologist Dr. Aviram Oshri believes that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of Galilee, nine miles west of Nazareth, and not where Christians for centuries have believed Christ’s birthplace to be: about 100 miles from Nazareth, near Jerusalem.

Part of Oshri’s argument lies around Mother Mary herself.

“How would a woman nine months pregnant travel 175 kilometres on a donkey all the way to Bethlehem of Judea? It makes much more sense that she would travel 14 kilometres,” Oshri states.

Oshri has been excavating near what he calls the second Bethlehem for over a decade now, and has discovered a Byzantine-era underground.

“Underneath the church, where the holiest of holies usually is, there was a natural cave,” he added.

Some Christian theories have Jesus being born in a manger located in a cave

Oshri’s site shows what could have been a two-story inn underneath the recently found church. Another interesting fact is that historical records show a fortifying wall being built in biblical Bethlehem. Though no such wall appears in Bethlehem, there are signs of one in Oshri’s site.

Not everyone agrees with Dr. Oshri’s findings.

Many people have claimed Dr. Oshri’s work to be erroneous. The Israel Antiquities Authority denounces his work as “worse than a joke.”

Oshri remains undeterred. “As I dig deeper and deeper, I am more convinced,” he says.

It is an intriguing idea, but it just doesn’t work. The Gospels are very clear that Jesus was born David’s home town. This was not simply an accident of geography. Bethlehem of Judea is where the Messiah or Christ had to be born.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod,Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Matt 2:1-8)

Herod would not have been threatened by any child born in Galilee, whatever his ancestry. Of course, this assumes that the Biblical account is accurate. For someone who does not believe the Gospels are historically accurate, the most reasonable assumption is that Jesus was born in Nazareth and that the Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke are simply pious fictions.

One of the problems here is that the popular idea of the birth of Jesus, as celebrated in Nativity Scenes does not actually correspond to the actual narratives found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mary was not actually nine months pregnant when she and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem. Neither the gospel of Matthew or Luke tells us how long they spent in Bethlehem but it was likely to have been a considerable period of time, perhaps months or even years. Remember that Herod ordered every male child two years old and younger to be killed. The Magi didn’t just show up as Jesus was being born.

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (Matt 2:16)

In fact, Joseph was more likely to take Mary with him if he expected to be gone for many months. What of the inn, though? Did Joseph and Mary spend months living in an outbuilding?

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

Well, as it happens, they very likely didn’t stay at an inn at all nor did Mary give birth in a barn. The Greek word translated as “inn” in Luke, καταλυμα (kataluma) actually means something closer to “guest room” The NIV actually translates kataluma as guest room. Bethlehem was a small village and it is not likely that there were any inns there.

English: The Church of the Nativity in Bethleh...

English: The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Place of Jesus’ birth Русский: Святая Пещера Рождества, православный престол над местом рождения Спасителя. Базилика Рождества Христова в Вифлееме (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even if there were, Joseph would surely have preferred to stay with his relatives. In most houses of that time and place, the guest room would be on the upper floor. In fact, kataluma is also used to refer to the “upper room” in Acts.

12 Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a sabbath day’s journey.

13 And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James. (Acts 1:12-13)

Most of the day-to-day activity in the house would have taken place on the ground floor and at night the animals would have been brought into the ground floor for protection and warmth. In other words, Joseph and Mary were not staying out in a stable because the inns were too crowded. They were staying in the ground floor of their host’s residence because the guest room was already taken.

There is no particular reason to question the Biblical account of the location of the birth of Jesus. If the Gospels are not true, than we have no way of knowing where Jesus was really born, nor perhaps does it matter very much. Most likely he was born in Nazareth or some other village in Galilee. If the Gospels are true, then they state very plainly that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, not in Galilee.

 

 

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Kurdistan

December 29, 2014

Lately,the news from Iraq has seemed very bleak, with the fanatics from the Islamic State (which has nothing to do with Islam, the Religion of Peace) poised to take over the country almost unopposed, but there is at least on group of people who have successfully managed to fight off the IS and is now getting help from the United States, the Kurds. There is even some chance that the Kurds will managed to finally get a state of their own, even though this is opposed by all the actors in the region.

The Kurds deserve their own state far more than the Palestinians. Unlike the Palestinians, they are a real nation with a language and culture of their own. They have lived in their homeland since at least the time of Alexander the Great and probably for centuries before. The Kurds have contributed their share of great people, including the Muslim warlord Saladin. What more do they need to get their own state?

Here is a story I read about their fight from the Bloomberg View.

With Cuba and North Korea dominating the headlines, Americans may have missed the good news from a corner of the world that has provided very little: Iraq. Kurdish peshmerga fighters have inflicted a series of defeats on Islamic State forces, freeing a broad swath of northern Iraq from the jihadists’ control.

These battlefield victories underline an equally striking change in U.S. policy: Starting in 2015, the U.S. military will be training three brigades of peshmerga and spending more than $350 million equipping them for battle with the fanatics tearing Iraq apart. While the Kurds have been semi-independent since 1991, with their own government, militias and foreign policy, this is the biggest step yet toward Washington allowing them to have a state of their own.

To understand the significance, recall that for the almost the entire Barack Obama presidency, the Kurds and the U.S. have been at odds. In Obama’s first term, the White House asked the highest-ranking Kurd in Iraq’s government, President Jalal Talabani, to resign his post in favor of Iyad Allawi, the secular Arab whose party won the most parliamentary seats in the 2010 election. (Talabani declined.) Obama’s diplomats consistently acceded to the sensitivities of Iraq’s Shiite-led government and refused to send promised equipment and weapons directly to Kurdish fighters. When the Kurds tried to fend for themselves by selling oil on the international market, U.S. diplomats warned oil companies not to purchase it.

The Kurds happen to be the most pro-American faction in Iraq, so of course Obama didn’t care for them. Smart diplomacy is helping your enemies while slamming your friends.

But then came the Islamic State. After Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, fell in June to jihadists using vehicles and weapons the U.S. had provided to Iraq’s army, Obama realized that the Kurds are America’s only competent friends left in Iraq. Indeed, last week Kurdish forces finally broke the Islamic State’s siege of Sinjar near the Syrian border.

This dependence on the Kurds to stop the jihadists complicates U.S. foreign policy tremendously. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have supported a “one Iraq” policy that commits the U.S. to discouraging Iraq’s Kurds from declaring themselves an independent country. Militarily, this meant the U.S. was committed to standing up a national Iraqi Army, not a regional militia that could challenge Baghdad’s monopoly of power.

“The unity of Iraq is absolutely essential both for longstanding U.S. policy and for regional stability; for American credibility and predictability with other partners; and for defeating IS,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq between 2010 and 2012 told me last week. Current U.S. officials working on the Iraq file echo this view. In short, Washington cannot be perceived by Iraq’s neighbors to be encouraging the dissolution of the country. For one thing, it could very well spur Turkey and the Persian Gulf States to defect from the international campaign against IS.

To understand why an independent Kurdistan is a problem, you have to look at a map of the region where the Kurds live.

Kurdistan

As you can see, the Kurdish population not only lives in the northern part of Iraq and western Iran, but they also make up a considerable part of the population of eastern Turkey. After the Ottoman Empire was overthrown in 1922, the secular Republic of Turkey was formed by Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk wanted to bring Turkey into the modern age so his government deemphasized the role of Islam and promoted Turkish nationalism and every Turkish leader since Ataturk has insisted that Turkey be ethnically homogenous. The Greek population of Asia Minor which has been living there since before the time of Christ was expelled in the 1920s. The Kurds have been harshly persecuted by various Turkish administrations. There language and culture has been outlawed and there identity taken away. According to the Turkish government there are no Kurds in Turkey. Those people are Eastern Turks or Mountain Turks. Naturally, the Kurds in Turkey have not taken kindly to this treatment and there have been several revolts each brutally suppressed. The Turks have eased up on human rights violations against the Kurds in recent years, in order to be considered for acceptance into the EU, but the Kurds are still treated poorly. The Turks fear that an independent Kurdistan in neighboring Iraq will encourage the Mountain Turks to rebel once again, or at least demand to be part of the new state.

A new state may happen, whatever the Turks, and others might wish.

Yet the question of a Kurdish state is getting harder to avoid. In July, Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region, came out in support of a referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq. The month before, Kurdish fighters had taken up posts abandoned by the Iraqi army in Kirkuk, a strategic city at the heart of disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdish region.

Even though Kurdistan is landlocked, it’s no longer such a stretch to imagine it being independent. Kurdish customs officials already stamp your passport at its airports. The Kurds have their diplomats and lobbyists in foreign capitals. And now, thanks to an oil deal reached early this month with Baghdad, they have staved off financial collapse and gotten Baghdad to agree to pay the salaries of their Peshmerga fighters. Over the summer Israel’s prime minister,Benjamin Netanyahu,  came out for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.

The one thing the Kurds do not have, however, is a modern army. The peshmerga own some tanks, some rifles and have in the past worked very closely with American special-operations forces in Iraq. But they are still organized like a militia, with various commanders more loyal to local Kurdish political leaders than to the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG. Between 1994 and 1997, forces loyal to the two major Kurdish parties fought one another in a civil war.

On a visit to Washington last month, Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, told reporters that his government was now beginning the process of creating a centralized Kurdish army. And this is where U.S. training of three Kurdish brigades could make a major difference. If the peshmerga transforms from a localized guerilla militia into a modern army, then one of the remaining pieces necessary for Kurdish independence will fall into place.

 

For now, the Kurds are partners in helping to destroy the makeshift caliphate that has effectively erased the border between Syria and Iraq. For this the world owes them a debt of gratitude. But by training and equipping a modern Kurdish army to achieve this task, Obama may find that he is helping destroy Iraq in order to save it.

Perhaps “Iraq” is not worth saving. Like many other states formed in the aftermath of decolonization, Iraq doesn’t really correspond to any real nation. The region of Mesopotamia is composed of many ethnic groups and religions and it may be that only a dictator like Saddam Hussein could possibly hold it together. It might be wise to partition Iraq or to create some loose confederation on the model of a country like Switzerland. I think that the Kurds, at least, should be independent. They are already their own nation and the Kurdish region of Iraq has already adopted many of the attributes of a sovereign state. If the Turks don’t like it, well they haven’t exactly acted as our allies lately. I think a free Kurdistan should be American policy.

English: Flag of Kurdistan

English: Flag of Kurdistan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus

December 24, 2014

Well, there was, at any rate. He was not a “jolly old elf”, he did not live at the North Pole, and he never made any toys or drove a sleigh with eight reindeer. He didn’t look like this.

He actually looked more like this.

Of course, I am talking about Saint Nicholas of Myra, the historical person on which the legends of Santa Claus are based.

Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch “Sinter Klaus”, and it was Dutch immigrants who brought over many of our ideas of Santa, including the idea of a man who gives out presents to well behaved children. Another influence was Father Christmas from Britain. And, of course there was the poem “The Night Before Christmas” which introduced the whole idea of the reindeer, going down chimneys, etc.The cartoonist Thomas Nast is believed to be responsible for the first portrayal of Santa in his red suit, and also the idea that he lives at the North Pole.

But the real Saint Nicholas was a bishop of the city of Myra in Asia Minor, or present day turkey. He lived from around 270-343. He was a Greek Christian whose parents died of an epidemic when he was very young. From his childhood he was religious. His uncle, also a bishop, raised him and when he was old enough made him a monk. Eventually he was made a bishop by the Christian community of Myra. There he stayed until his death in 343.

Nicholas apparently was quite a zealous bishop. He was imprisoned during the last great persecution of the Emperor Diocletian, but was released when Constantine became Emperor. He debated against and fought the pagans and the Arians, a heretic branch of Christianity, and participated in the great Council of Nicaea, where he lost control of his temper and actually slapped Arius. He was imprisoned for this but released after three days.

He was most famous for his acts of charity, many of which are probably legendary.The most famous story is that passing by a house he heard three daughters lament because their father could not afford a dowry for any of them. Without a dowry they could not get married and would probably have to resort to prostitution to survive. (Somehow this story never made into the children’s specials.) He threw a bag of gold into their window as each girl became old enough to marry. In one variation of the story, by the time of the third daughter, the father lay in wait to discover the identity of his benefactor. When Nicholas saw this, he threw the bag into their chimney.

After his death, Nicholas was buried in Myra, but in 1087, with Asia Minor being overrun by the Turks, some Italian sailors stole the remains and brought them to Bari, where they remain to this day.

Nicholas is a Saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches His feast day is December 6, today, and he is the patron saint of children, sailors, repentant thieves, pawn brokers, and others.

So, now you know the true story of Santa Claus.

If you want to know more about Catholic saints see here.

 

The Nativity According to John

December 24, 2014

Like Mark, John does not include a narrative of the nativity. Instead, John chooses to go all the way back to the beginning.

 1.In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life,and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-4)

“The Word” is the usual translation of the Greek word λογος (logos) but logos means more than just “word” Logos means something like speech or discourse or reason. Hence the word logic is derived from logos, as well as “ology” as in geology or biology. The Stoic philosophers used the word logos to refer to the divine Reason in their pantheistic belief system while the Hellenistic Jews identified logos with the wisdom or spirit of God. John follows the Jewish view by identifying the logos with God. Notice he also identifies light and life with God this is a theme found throughout his gospel and in the first letter of John.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (John 1:6-8)

John the Baptist was not the Word. He was only a messenger.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:9-14)

The Word became flesh. But who was the Word or the Son.

15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (John 1:15-18)

The Word made flesh was Jesus Christ. Of the four gospels, John most emphasizes the divine nature of Jesus, even to the  point of omitting incidents that show any weakness on the part of Jesus. John does not mention Jesus’s temptation in the desert by the Devil after being baptized by John the Baptist nor does he show Jesus’s agony at the Garden of Gethsemane. There is no cry of despair from the cross. Jesus is alway shown as being calm and in control of events.

It may be that John wanted to emphasize the divinity of Jesus as a rebuttal to those who either believed that Jesus, while the Messiah was merely human and those who held that Jesus  was born human but had been adopted as the Son at his baptism or at some other time. John states that Jesus has existed since before time began as the eternal Word of God. At the same time, John firmly rejects the other extreme that Jesus did not really have a body made of matter but only seemed to be flesh. This idea was held by many Gnostics who taught that physical matter was an inferior substance to the spiritual realm, created by an inferior, and perhaps evil, deity. Jesus Christ, being a emissary from the higher God could not have a body made of mere flesh. John asserts that the the Word was made flesh and that really did have a body and really did eat and sleep.

It is curious that both these heresies are still found today, clothed in modern garb. Many liberal theologians cannot believe in the divinity of Jesus and insist that he was merely a great moral teacher. There are some Atheists who insist that Jesus never really existed in the physical realm but only as a myth. Maybe there really is nothing new under the Sun.

Tomorrow we celebrate the Word made flesh, the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The Nativity According to Luke

December 22, 2014

The Gospel of Luke tells us what Christmas is all about

 

Linus quotes from the Gospel according to Luke.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.(Luke 2:1-21)

Luke is a historian of the Hellenistic school, like Herodotus or Thucydides. Although he tries to establish times and places, he is actually less interested in being precise than in understanding the meaning of the events he records. In fact, it wasn’t so easy to give exact dates in those times, given that every city and region had its own calendar and way of numbering or naming the years.

There is a considerable amount of skepticism about the census, both on the dating and the procedure. Most skeptics regard it as extremely improbable that the Romans would make people travel here and there to register in their home towns. As a matter of fact that is just how the Romans conducted their censuses.

Every five years, each male Roman citizen had to register in Rome for the census. In this he had to declare his family, wife, children, slaves and riches. Should he fail to do this, his possessions would be confiscated and he would be sold into slavery.
But registration meant freedom. A master wishing to free his slave needed only to enter him in the censor’s list as a citizen (manumissio censu).
Throughout the entire republican era, registration in the census was the only way that a Roman could ensure that his identity and status as a citizen were recognized. Fathers registered their sons, employers their freedmen.
Primarily the census served to count the number of citizens and to assess the potential military strength and future tax revenue. Most important, the census transformed the city into a political and military community.
But the census performed a highly symbolical function. To the Romans the census made them more than a mere crowd, or barbarian rabble. It made them a populus, a people, capable of collective action.
To the Roman the census was one of the foundation stones of their civilization.

As the Roman Empire expanded and citizenship was given out to other cities in Italy and around the Mediterranean, I would imagine that every Roman citizen had to go to his native city to register. Presumably there were lists of citizens kept in major cities and in Rome. Paul claimed to be a Roman citizen at various times in Acts and you might wonder how he was able to prove it. Well, every Roman citizen had a sort of ID or diploma which would have been issued in his city.

But with the steady extension of the citizenship by individual grants to provincials isolated in peregrine communes, and with the informal settlement of large numbers of Italian immigrants in the provincial territories, a more effective means of registration became necessary. Formal documentation of the grant of citizenship to provincial soldiery appears first in 89 B.C., in the shape of a bronze tablet recording the decree of a proconsul enfranchising a unit of Spanish cavalrymen in the Social War, who are all named in a general list. Presumably each soldier received a copy. The cities of persons of higher status enfranchised by Octavian in c. 40 B.C. received a copy of a decree detailing all the privileges of their new status, while his auxiliary veterans could acquire copies of the enabling edict that enfranchised them. But it is only with the regularization of the grant of citizenship to the all time-expired auxiliaries by Claudius that a standardized document appears. This is the small bronze diptych known as the diploma civitatis, containing a brief and uniform formula conferring the Roman citizenship on the holder and his descendants, who is indicated by his name and military unit. These documents were not normally used for civilians, who received instead a copy in libellus form of the brief imperial warrant authorizing the registration of their enfranchisement in the archives at Rome.

Diplomata and libelli provided for new citizens. For the mass of the citizenry, for whom censorial registration at five-yearly intervals was an inefficient instrument, adequate provision was finally made by the creation of an official system of compulsory birth registration under the social legislation of Augustus (A.D. 4)… The Roman citizen was required to register the birth of his children within thirty days before a Roman official, and he received a wooden diptych recording the declaration, which acted as a certificate of citizenship for the child for the rest of his life. Like the military diplomata this contained the names of seven witnesses, and provided a presumptive proof of citizen status… Similarly the enfranchisement of freedmen, which depended upon a formal act, was recorded in a documentary tabella manumissionis. Citizens of diverse origins thus came to have some form of documentary evidence of their status.

Presumably Paul registered at Tarsus while he lived there. To get back to the census; obviously Joseph wasn’t a Roman citizen and Judea was under the rule of Herod, not the Romans. The census could have been a small time affair, the mention of Caesar Augustus being either an exaggeration or a long-standing policy of Augustus to encourage the provinces to conduct censuses, but conducted according to Roman norms, with every resident registering in his home town. You must not imagine, however, large crowds of people traveling to and fro. Remember that in this time most people would have lived their whole lives in the same village. Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been very much an exception. The only thing really odd about this account was his taking Mary with him. As a woman, her residency would not have mattered much. In the other hand, she was also of the line of David and perhaps her presence in Bethlehem might have been desirable. Again you must not imagine that Mary was on the point of giving birth as they traveled. They could have spent several weeks in Bethlehem.

 

 

The Nativity According to Mark

December 22, 2014

The Gospel of Mark does not actually include a narrative of Jesus’s birth. Instead Mark gets right to business with John the Baptist.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,  as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

(Mark 1:1-8)

Then Jesus makes his first appearance, fully grown and ready to begin His public ministry.

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

(Mark 1:9-15)

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark’s gospel was probably the first gospel written. It is the shortest of the four gospels and seems to have been intended as a sort of FAQ for Christians wanting to know more about the central figure of their faith. Mark doesn’t include a lot of details about Jesus’s life and teachings. He just gives the basic facts about Jesus’s ministry, his miracles and his death on the cross.

The earliest Christians weren’t really interested in the details of Jesus’s birth or His early life. Even His teachings were of secondary importance. For the early Christians, the most important fact about Jesus was that he was crucified, died, and them came back to life, defeating death and sin and redeeming the whole world. Paul, whose letters are some of the earliest Christian writings hardly mentions any details of Jesus’s life. He was surely not ignorant. Both he and the recipients of his letters already knew the information found in the Gospels. For both Paul and the people he wrote to, the most important thing was the death and resurrection. For the earliest Christians Easter, not Christmas, was the most important day of the year. Indeed, the birth of Christ may not have been celebrated by Christians until the third or fourth century.

There is a lot of talk, these days, about the War on Christmas, and I have written posts about the Secular Christmas Grinches who seem determined to ruin Christmas for everyone, or at least strip it of all meaning until it is a generic “Holiday”. As Christians, we should remember the importance of Christmas and should fight against the increasing marginalization of the Judeo-Christian worldview that this nation was founded upon. Still, we should also remember that Christ’s death and resurrection was the reason he came into the world. If Jesus is the reason for Christmas, Good Friday and Easter are the reason for Jesus. We should remember Christ on the cross as well as baby Jesus in the manger.

Atheist Christmas Specials

December 20, 2014

I am not sure that this story I read in the Washington Times really counts as part of the War on Christmas while the atheists involved are not trying to stop any one from celebrating the Christmas holiday.

Conservatives have been mocked for insisting there’s an ongoing war on Christmas, but now it looks like they may have simply been ahead of their time.

Anyone who doubts that there has been a war against Christmas either hasn’t been paying attention or is being disingenuous. These days, not a holiday season goes by without the Freedom from Religion Foundation or the American Atheists or some other militant secular group suing some town for putting up a nativity scene or somehow acknowledging that Christmas is a Christian holiday.

American Atheists unveiled Wednesday the “War on Christmas” line-up on its television channel, AtheistTV, featuring “original programs proclaiming the truth about Christmas on December 24 and December 25, featuring scholars and celebrities from the atheist community

“Christmas is hard for many atheists, so we will provide programming free from superstition and fairy tales that allows families to watch together and not worry about being preached at,” American Atheists President Dave Silverman said in a statement.

Conservatives like Fox News talk-show hosts Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly have long warned of a “War on Christmas,” citing moves by retailers, public schools and local governments to remove references to Christmas from displays and celebrations.

The network’s annual Coverage of anti-Christmas happenings has drawn taunts from “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, such as last year’s “War on Christmas: S***’s Getting Weird Edition,” while the liberal online magazine Salon weighed in with a sarcastic article titled, “9 reasons Fox News thinks there’s a war on Christmas.”

AtheistTV’s slate of “holiday-inspired specials” probably won’t make anyone forget “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” They include a speech by Council for Secular Humanism Executive Director Tom Flynn and an episode of the atheist viewpoint titled, ‘Is Christmas a Religious Holiday?

There’s also the “Xmas 2009” episode of The Atheist Experience and episodes of The Atheist Voice with The Friend Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta, according to the press release.

The AtheistTV channel was launched worldwide on July 29 and can be accessed via Roku set-top boxes or as a free online stream at www.atheists.tv, the release said.

Somehow I don’t think that these shows will replace classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas or Frosty the Snowman as the sort of thing families will gather around and watch. Indeed, it might be a form of child abuse to force young children to watch lectures by prominent atheists during the Holiday season.

I don’t have any objection to AthiestTV or to any of these shows. Why should I? Unlike the more litigious atheists, I do not care how, or even if, other people want to celebrate any holidays they wish in any way that they wish. I will gladly leave them alone. I just wish they would leave the rest of us alone.

I have to wonder why Christmas is hard for many atheists, as secularized and de-Christianized as the holiday has become. Why can’t they celebrate Christmas without Christ? And why do they have to refer to the beliefs of others as “fairy tales” and “superstitions”? I don’t have to put down other religions if I talk about the birth of the Savior. Here again is an example of the negativity of Atheism. The Atheist does not have a positive message to spread. He can only tear down others.

I don’t think I will have much of an opportunity to see any of these Atheist Christmas Specials. Most likely they will be a waste of time. I imagine that they will showcase the usual bad arguments on how Jesus never existed and Christmas is really a pagan holiday, arguments long since debunked. Hardly worth the trouble.

The Nativity According to Matthew

December 20, 2014
The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1305) by Giot...

The Adoration of the Magi

Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. I’ll skip the genealogy and go straight to his account of Jesus’s birth.

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 1:18-2:20)

Most people think that the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem involved the murder of hundreds or thousands of innocents. Remember, though, that Bethlehem was a small village in this time with a likely population of a few hundred. It is doubtful that more than half a dozen children were killed, not enough to make it into any other sources we have for Herod’s rule. Herod was certainly ruthless enough to order such a massacre. He had no trouble killing members of his own family if he thought they threatened his rule. In fact, Herod being an Idumean (or Edomite) and not a Jew, was a foreigner and so was as despised by many Judeans as a Roman governor would have been. If he had heard that there was a potential rival to his throne, even a child, that the Jews might rally around, he would have wasted no time in disposing of that rival.

The word Magi usually refers to Zoroastrian priests. In Greco-Roman usage the term Magi had connotations of magicians or sorcerers, exotic figures from distant lands. It is not clear just who the Magi actually were. They may indeed have been Zoroastrians. The references to the Star of Bethlehem suggest that they may have been astrologers. The Babylonians had a reputation for being skilled in astrology and magic so the Magi may have come from Mesopotamia. They may also have been Jewish since they were seeking for a king of the Jews. The fact that they were unfamiliar with the prophets may prove that they were Gentiles. The number of the Magi is not given in the Gospel. The reason that three are usually pictured  is that there were three gifts; gold, frankincense,and myrrh.

It is also not clear just what the Star of Bethlehem actually was. There have been several theories presented, but none of them are entirely satisfactory. The star might have been a supernova, perhaps in a nearby galaxy. There is no way to know for certain since any supernova remnant so far away would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to detect. It might also have been a comet. This is rather unlikely. Although a comet would behave much as the star is said to behave, hanging in the sky over a certain location for several nights, comets were universally perceived as being harbingers of disaster in ancient, and not so ancient, times. The most likely explanation is a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The astronomer Keppler discovered that there was indeed such a conjunction in the year 7 BC. The following year there was another conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This might have been very impressive to the Magi. It may also be that the Star was a supernatural phenomenon and one that cannot be studied today. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas.

Prosecute Them?

December 19, 2014

Shortly after I finished that last post I checked my e-mail and found this.

David-

Please sign the petition by Daily Kos and Demand Progress demanding accountability for the just-revealed torture by the CIA.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has released the CIA torture report — after over 170,000 people signed our petition demanding they do so — and the details make us sick to our stomachs.

Simply put, the United States has tortured people — meaning “waterboarding” and much more — in direct violation of its own War Crimes Act.  And it violates the U.N. Convention Against Torture — which President Ronald Reagan signed.

We cannot allow what happened in the Bush-Cheney Administration to happen again.

Attorney General Eric Holder must appoint a special prosecutor to hold accountable those who committed such crimes, and the Obama Administration must dismiss CIA head John Brennan and all employees at the CIA who were involved.

But despite his purported opposition to torture, President Obama isn’t going create meaningful repercussions for it unless we force him to:

Sign the petition by Daily Kos and Demand Progress: Demand accountability. Dismiss and prosecute all those at the CIA responsible for authorizing and overseeing the implementation of torture.

Thanks.

-Demand Progress

As I said before, it is unfortunate that such things as enhanced interrogation techniques, or torture if you will, are used by agencies of the United States government. In an ideal world, no one working for the US government would ever use such techniques nor would they be necessary. We do not live in that ideal world. In the real world, there are people who want to do us harm. I am not greatly concerned about the civil rights of such people nor do I care very much for their reasons for wanting to harm us. It may well be that they have legitimate grievances against US policies.  I do not care. Whatever reasons they may have do not justify the murder of innocent Americans. I am not willing to risk the lives of my fellow Americans just to satisfy critics who will never be satisfied. If torture is at all effective at gaining information that will prevent another 9/11 than it can and should be used. I am also not willing to see the people tasked with preventing another such atrocity prosecuted for trying to protect us.

Torture is bad, there is no doubt about it, but we are not always given a clear choice between good and bad. More often the choice is between less bad and more bad. I can think of worse things than torturing suspected terrorists. If the people at Demand Progress and Daily Kos believe that the use of torture somehow causes the US to lose the moral high ground (as if these people on the left will ever concede that the US has ever held the high ground) perhaps they need to be reminded of just who our enemies are and what they can do.

Waterboarding doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

 

That Torture Report and the Jacksonians

December 19, 2014

The recent release of a report detailing the “enhanced interrogation” techniques doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on public opinion, according to the Washington Post.

A new poll from the Pew Research Center is the first to gauge reactions to last week’s big CIA report on “enhanced interrogation techniques” — what agency critics call torture.

And the reaction is pretty muted.

The poll shows people says 51-29 percent than the CIA’s methods were justified and 56-28 percent that the information gleaned helped prevent terror attacks.

The word “torture,” it should be noted, isn’t mentioned in the poll, but it has been associated with much of the coverage of the issue. And the numbers align nicely with polls on the use of torture, which shows that relatively few Americans are concerned about it — especially when you bring the prospect of combating terrorism into the mix.

That lack of real concern about what the CIA was doing is also reflected in the amount of interest in the story. While newspapers and broadcast news across the country devoted a huge amount of coverage to the Senate intelligence committee report last week, just 23 percent of Americans say they are following the story “very closely,” while 50 percent are following it “not too closely” or “not at all.” That ranks it behind the Ferguson/Eric Garner protests and stories about the U.S. economy.

And it’s not just that people who aren’t concerned about torture aren’t tuning in. Those who have followed the story the most, in fact, approve of the program 59-34 percent.

Even Democrats are pretty split on the justification for the program. While 37 percent say it was justified, 46 percent say it wasn’t. Liberal Democrats disapprove 65-25 percent, but moderate and conservative Democrats approve 48-32 percent.

Given the images that were conjured by the report — “rectal feeding,” etc. — that’s not much of a reaction. Indeed, this is not the kind of public outcry that demands big changes to how the CIA conducts business.

I can’t say that I am very surprised by the results of this poll. I would expect a certain tolerance  for the harsh treatment of people perceived to be enemies by the American people, especially among that segment of the American population which could be described as the Jacksonians.

Who are the Jacksonians? Some years ago,Walter Russel Mead wrote an essay describing four factions of American public public opinion of foreign policy and war. According to Mead, these factions are the principled, pacifistic Jeffersonians with an emphasis on human rights, the moralistic Wilsonians who favor international organizations such as the United Nations,the pragmatic Hamiltonians who want a foreign policy based on “realism”and balances of power, and the populist Jacksonians, who might prefer to ignore foreign policy altogether unless America’s vital interests or honor is at stake. Mead spent the bulk of his essay describing the Jacksonians.

English: Andrew Jackson - 7 th President of th...

English: Andrew Jackson – 7 th President of the United States (1829–1837) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I cannot summarize Mr. Mead’s essay in a way that would do it justice. You ought to read the whole thing. There are a few excerpts I would like to share that might be relevant in understanding why torture might be acceptable to a large segment of the American people.

Jacksonians are concerned with honor.

To understand how Crabgrass Jacksonianism is shaping and will continue to shape American foreign policy, we must begin with another unfashionable concept: Honor. Although few Americans today use this anachronistic word, honor remains a core value for tens of millions of middle-class Americans, women as well as men. The unacknowledged code of honor that shapes so much of American behavior and aspiration today is a recognizable descendent of the frontier codes of honor of early Jacksonian America. The appeal of this code is one of the reasons that Jacksonian values have spread to so many people outside the original ethnic and social nexus in which Jacksonian America was formed.

Jacksonian honor must be acknowledged by the outside world. One is entitled to, and demands, the appropriate respect: recognition of rights and just claims, acknowledgment of one’s personal dignity. Many Americans will still fight, sometimes with weapons, when they feel they have not been treated with the proper respect. But even among the less violent, Americans stand on their dignity and rights.

They see themselves as part of a larger community with a line drawn between those who are inside and those who are outside the community.

Jacksonian society draws an important distinction between those who belong to the folk community and those who do not. Within that community, among those bound by the code and capable of discharging their responsibilities under it, Jacksonians are united in a social compact. Outside that compact is chaos and darkness. The criminal who commits what, in the Jacksonian code, constitute unforgivable sins (cold-blooded murder, rape, the murder or sexual abuse of a child, murder or attempted murder of a peace officer) can justly be killed by the victims’ families, colleagues or by society at large—with or without the formalities of law. In many parts of the United States, juries will not convict police on almost any charge, nor will they condemn revenge killers in particularly outrageous cases. The right of the citizen to defend family and property with deadly force is a sacred one as well, a legacy from colonial and frontier times.

The absolute and even brutal distinction drawn between the members of the community and outsiders has had massive implications in American life. Throughout most of American history the Jacksonian community was one from which many Americans were automatically and absolutely excluded: Indians, Mexicans, Asians, African Americans, obvious sexual deviants and recent immigrants of non-Protestant heritage have all felt the sting. Historically, the law has been helpless to protect such people against economic oppression, social discrimination and mob violence, including widespread lynchings. Legislators would not enact laws, and if they did, sheriffs would not arrest, prosecutors would not try, juries would not convict.

The lines have been broadened in recent years to include minorities formerly excluded, especially if they share Jacksonian values. Mead points out that Jacksonian values are prevalent in the African-American community and this has helped to make the Civil Rights movement acceptable to Jacksonians.

The underlying cultural unity between African Americans and Anglo-Jacksonian America shaped the course and ensured the success of the modern civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and his followers exhibited exemplary personal courage, their rhetoric was deeply rooted in Protestant Christianity, and the rights they asked for were precisely those that Jacksonian America values most for itself. Further, they scrupulously avoided the violent tactics that would have triggered an unstoppable Jacksonian response.

Although cultures change slowly and many individuals lag behind, the bulk of American Jacksonian opinion has increasingly moved to recognize the right of code-honoring members of minority groups to receive the rights and protections due to members of the folk community. This new and, one hopes, growing feeling of respect and tolerance emphatically does not extend to those, minorities or not, who are not seen as code-honoring Americans. Those who violate or reject the code—criminals, irresponsible parents, drug addicts—have not benefited from the softening of the Jacksonian color line.

Jacksonians are the true realists in foreign policy.

Given the moral gap between the folk community and the rest of the world—and given that other countries are believed to have patriotic and communal feelings of their own, feelings that similarly harden once the boundary of the folk community is reached—Jacksonians believe that international life is and will remain both anarchic and violent. The United States must be vigilant and strongly armed. Our diplomacy must be cunning, forceful and no more scrupulous than anybody else’s. At times, we must fight pre-emptive wars. There is absolutely nothing wrong with subverting foreign governments or assassinating foreign leaders whose bad intentions are clear. Thus, Jacksonians are more likely to tax political leaders with a failure to employ vigorous measures than to worry about the niceties of international law.

Indeed, of all the major currents in American society, Jacksonians have the least regard for international law and international institutions. They prefer the rule of custom to the written law, and that is as true in the international sphere as it is in personal relations at home. Jacksonians believe that there is an honor code in international life—as there was in clan warfare in the borderlands of England—and those who live by the code will be treated under it. But those who violate the code—who commit terrorist acts in peacetime, for example—forfeit its protection and deserve no consideration.

And they have clear ideas about how wars are to be fought.

Jacksonian America has clear ideas about how wars should be fought, how enemies should be treated, and what should happen when the wars are over. It recognizes two kinds of enemies and two kinds of fighting: honorable enemies fight a clean fight and are entitled to be opposed in the same way; dishonorable enemies fight dirty wars and in that case all rules are off.

An honorable enemy is one who declares war before beginning combat; fights according to recognized rules of war, honoring such traditions as the flag of truce; treats civilians in occupied territory with due consideration; and—a crucial point—refrains from the mistreatment of prisoners of war. Those who surrender should be treated with generosity. Adversaries who honor the code will benefit from its protections, while those who want a dirty fight will get one.

There is a lot more, but I think this is enough to explain the matter. From the Jacksonian point of view the victims of the CIA’s methods are outsiders who have violated any code of honor. They follow a strange religion which seems to encourage acts of violence against the innocent. They are not one of us. They forfeited any claims to human rights when they decided to fly planes into the sides of buildings or behead Christians in Iraq. The Jacksonian is not interested in exporting democracy to the Middle East. They do not care if the people who want to destroy America are denied their civil rights or are treated poorly. They do not want decades long wars in the Middle East. The Jacksonians believe that enemies must be defeated and then, they can go back home and live their lives.

I am not sure where I stand in Mead’s arrangement. I am certainly not a Wilsonian or a Jeffersonian. Perhaps I am mostly a Jacksonian with a tinge of Hamiltonianism. I really don’t have much of a problem with what the CIA has been doing. It is deplorable, to be sure, and it would be better if such things were not necessary, but, like the Jacksonians, I am not inclined worry too much about the welfare of people who are trying to kill me.


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