Archive for December, 2019

Over the Edge

December 26, 2019

While I was writing on how close we, as a country are, to stepping off the edge of a cliff into the abyss of political confusion, the Democrats in the House of Representatives took us a step closer by voting to impeach Donald Trump. This attempt at removing the president from office is foolish because there is no conceivable way that the Democrats will get the sixty-seven votes needed to convict the president and remove him from office. Given that at present there are fifty-three Republican Senators, it is unlikely that even a majority of the Senate will vote to convict. The most likely outcome of this farce is that the Senate will vote to acquit Trump with at least one or two Democratic Senators defecting. Trump and his supporters will announce that he has been vindicated of any wrongdoing, and Trump will campaign on the basis that the impeachment was nothing less than a coup by the swamp he had been trying to drain. Trump will make the 2020 election between himself as the tribune of the people fighting against the deep state elite which tried to unseat a duly elected president on specious charges and he will win, if not by a landslide, then by a comfortable margin. Already, the Republicans are setting records in fundraising.

If the only outcome of the Democrats’ attempt to impeach the president was to reelect the president they are trying so desperately to get rid of, it would not be a serious matter, more amusing than anything else. This impeachment is a serious matter, however, because of the dangerous precedent, the Democrats are setting. This attempt at impeaching the president is not motivated by any particular wrongdoing discovered. The Democrats have been stating their intention to impeach Trump even before his inauguration. The telephone call between President Trump and President Zelensky is only a pretext. This impeachment, unlike previous presidential impeachments, was done solely for political purposes, to undo the results of the 2016 election. Politics did play a role in the impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, to be sure, but these two men actually did commit violations of the law. Donald Trump is a victim of a witch hunt, an unceasing pursuit to impeach him for anything. The impeachment of Donald Trump could best be described as an attempted coup.

Since this impeachment is being done simply to remove a president the Democrats do not like, what is there to stop the Republicans from retaliating by impeaching the next Democratic president? Some Republicans are already threatening to do so. Why shouldn’t they, since those are the new rules? And, what is to stop the Democrats from replying in kind against the next Republican president? Do we really want to have a situation in which every president from here on out is impeached the instant the opposition party takes control of Congress? What happens if a president really does commit a serious crime or abuse of power? Would anyone take an attempt to impeach him seriously? Why should they, if the last five times the president was impeached were simply politics? What happens if a president impeached on specious grounds in convicted, and simply refuses to leave the White House? Half the country might back him in the ensuing constitutional crisis.

There is a way to remove a president you don’t like. It is called an election. The Democrats would have done better to have prepared to make their case to the voters that Trump should be removed from office next November. Instead, they chose to take that decision away from us and to take the country a few steps closer to the edge. We really don’t want to go over that cliff.

 

The Nativity According to John

December 23, 2019

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 always 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 an emissary from the higher God could not have a body made of mere flesh. John asserts that the Word was made flesh and that really did have a body and really did eat and sleep.

Curiously, 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. Some Atheists insist that Jesus never really existed in the physical realm but only as a myth. Maybe there really is nothing new under the Sun.

 

The Nativity According to Mark

December 22, 2019

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 then 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.

The Story of Hanukkah

December 22, 2019

Hanukkah begins at sunset today, so I thought I would write a little about this holiday. Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights. It is an eight-day celebration that lasts from the twenty-fifth day of Kislev to the second day of Tevet. Since the Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar, the days float around from November to December in the Gregorian calendar. This year the days of Hanukkah are celebrated from December 22-30

English: Hanukkah menorah, known also as Hanuk...

Hanukkah was not a major holiday in the Jewish calendar, unlike Passover or the High Holy Days. The festival has increased in importance among North American Jews because of its proximity to Christmas. There is even a tendency among Gentiles to regard Hanukkah as some sort of Jewish Christmas. This is unfortunate since the backgrounds of the two holidays are quite different. The story of Hanukkah is one of the Jewish people fighting for their freedom to worship God in their own way. I think this story is inspiring and worth learning, both for Jews and Gentiles.

The history goes back to the time of Alexander the Great. He conquered the Persian Empire in one of the most remarkable military campaigns in history. Unfortunately, when he died in 323 BC, he left no provision for any successors and so his generals fought among themselves and eventually Alexander’s empire was divided among them. One of these successors was named Seleucus and he gained control of what is now Iran and Iraq. His kingdom is known to historians as the Seleucid Empire. This time is known as the Hellenistic Era.

Around 200 BC the Seleucids defeated the Egyptians and gained the territories of modern Syria and Israel. During this time the Jewish religion was tolerated and respected by the Ptolemies of Egypt. During this time, also, the Greek language and culture spread far and wide among the conquered peoples. Greek culture had become “cool” and everybody wanted to be a part of it. People who adopted Greek culture could be said to be “Hellenized” from Hellene, the Greek word for Greek. This caused no little consternation among the more traditional Jews. They were afraid that in the rush to embrace Greek culture, many Jews would fall into the worship of the Greek gods and so to idolatry. So, to some extent, the events which followed were as much a civil war as a war between the Jews and the Seleucids.

Antiochus IV

In the year 175, Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended the throne of the Seleucids. Unlike previous Hellenistic rulers, he seemed to believe himself a god and was eager that everyone in his realm pay divine honors to the Greek gods. For most of the people in the Empire, this was no great burden as a few more gods didn’t matter all that much. For all but the most Hellenized Jews, this was an impossible demand. There was only one God. When fighting broke out between Hellenized and traditional Jews, Antiochus sided with the Hellenized Jews and in 167 sent an army to capture Jerusalem and compel the worship of the Greek gods. A statue of Zeus was placed on the altar of the Temple and the Jewish religion was banned.

This sparked a rebellion and a guerilla war which was led by a priest named Matthias and his five sons. The most prominent of these was Judas Maccabeus. Antiochus IV had many other problems, especially with the Persians to the east and the rising power of Rome to the west and could never spare the forces necessary to crush the revolt. By 165, the Maccabees were able to retake Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple of the defilement of the pagans.

According to legend, there was only enough oil to light the Menorah for one day, and yet miraculously, they were able to keep it lit for eight days until more oil could be procured. These eight days became known as the Festival of Lights and to commemorate this victory and miracle, a nine-branched menorah is lit. A more prosaic explanation for the origins of this holiday is that the first Hanukkah was a belated celebration of Sukkot. Whatever the truth of the

The Nativity According to Matthew

December 21, 2019
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 yetdid 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.

 

 

On the Edge

December 20, 2019

I was a little confused when I saw this meme.

 

I was not aware that the National Socialist Party was fielding candidates in next year’s election. In fact, I was not aware that there were enough Nazis in the United States to run for any elections. But then, I saw the #bluewave at the bottom and it became clear to me. By Nazi, they are referring to the Republicans.

This meme is as pernicious as it is false. It is false because neither of the major American political parties is anything at all like the Nazis. Here is the official 1920 platform for the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP or Nazi). There may be superficial similarities with one or both of the American parties in some of the planks, but I doubt very much if either party would endorse a platform anything like the Nazi platform. It seems particularly odd to compare the party whose president has a Jewish son-in-law, is probably the most pro-Israel president in the history of US-Israeli relations, and who has just signed an executive order against college anti-semitism with the Nazis, given that the one thing the Nazis were most infamous for was their hatred of the Jews. I wonder if the creator of this meme actually knows anything at all about the Nazis, or about history in general. Probably not.

This meme is pernicious because the attitude it displays tends to undermine the norms that the members of any polity, especially a democratic republic such as ours must adhere to survive. The loser of an election must concede gracefully to the winner. The winner must not attempt to change the rules or rig the system to maintain power. Elections and policy debates must follow rules everyone agrees to and ought not to be changed because one side dislikes the results. Factions that oppose the ruling faction’s policies must be viewed as members of the loyal opposition and not as traitors. The ruling faction’s policies may be opposed but not the system itself. There must be respect for opposing viewpoints. Above all else, political violence must be accepted under any circumstance. By following these rules, our republic has had peaceful transfers of power between leaders and political parties for over two hundred years. Ceasing to follow these rules will mean an end to that long, proud record.

The problem is that if you see people, not as fellow citizens you happen to have different ideas but as members of one of the vilest groups in the history of politics, you will probably not feel much desire to compromise or deal with them. After all, if they are Nazis, you have to stop them, by any means available. You need not concede elections when your opponents are Nazis. You do not need to respect their opinions. You can engage in blatant electoral fraud, deplatform and shout down their supporters, ostracise them, conduct impeachment on bogus grounds and even sanction violence against them. If the leader of the opposing party is literally Hitler, then why not attempt to assassinate him? If his supporters are Nazis why not assault them? They are the ones promoting violence and genocide in the first place.

We are standing on the edge of an abyss here in America. We are just a few steps away from stepping off the edge, into shattering the political norms that have allowed for the peaceful transfer of power in this country for more than two centuries. No matter where you stand politically, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, no matter how you feel about President Trump, you do not want want to live in a country in which those norms have broken down. You do not want to live in the kind of country in which political violence has been normalized. There have been people on the Left who imagine themselves as part of #theresistance and people on the right who fantasize about second amendment solutions to encroaching socialism. These people have no idea what they would be getting into. If their fantasies come true, they will find themselves in a situation uglier than they can imagine.

History is full of countries in which the political norms have broken down; the last century of the Roman Republic, the Spanish Civil War, Weimar Germany, and many, many others, Once broken down, the norms are almost impossible to reestablish. The results of that breakdown are seldom greater liberty, but tyranny. It is very difficult to climb back out of the abyss.

There is still time. We can still step back from the edge. It may be difficult, but the alternative is so much worse. We can begin by not sharing memes like the one above. The people of the opposing party are not Nazis or Communists. They are our fellow citizens, whose differing opinions we ought to respect. There is no one in American politics who is even slightly like Hitler, or Stalin, or any other dictator. If you do not like the president or any other politician, say so. Vote against him or her in the next election. But please, don’t seek to break the system just because someone you don’t like is in office. They won’t be in office forever. The damage to our institutions might be forever. Let’s all walk away from the cliff while there is still time.

The Nativity According to Luke

December 20, 2019

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 Best President You’ve Never Heard Of

December 16, 2019

I doubt if many Americans could name even one American president from the nineteenth century, except for Abraham Lincoln. Thomas Jefferson was the first president of the nineteenth century, but he is better known for being the writer of the Declaration of Independence and in these days of educational malpractice for owning slaves. Andrew Jackson might also be remembered, if only because he appears on the twenty-dollar bill. Grover Cleveland still has his moment of fame for being the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. I doubt many Americans would even recognize names like John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison.

This historical ignorance may be forgivable when you consider that the presidency did not play so prominent a role in the nation’s affairs as it has in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These were the days in which the president was simply the chief executive rather than the elected monarch he is today. Presidents simply didn’t do as much as they do nowadays. Still, the nineteenth-century presidents were not simply do-nothing presidents. Some of these presidents accomplished a great deal during their terms in office. A few of these presidents could be counted among the worst, including the worst president ever. Others could be counted among the best American presidents. James K. Polk was one of these. He was the best president you have never heard of.

James K. Polk

So who was James K. Polk? That was the question many people were asking when the Democrats nominated Polk as their candidate in 1844. Polk was a dark horse who had seemingly come out of nowhere to secure the nomination as a compromise candidate after the convention was deadlocked between the supporters of Lewis Cass and Martin van Buren. Polk was not really that unknown, however. He actually had been active in national politics for some time being of Andrew Jackson, gaining the nickname “Young Hickory”, a reference to Jackson’s “Old Hickory.

Andrew Jackson

James Knox Polk was born on November 2, 1795, in Pineville, North Carolina. Growing up, James Polk adopted his mother’s stern Presbyterianism, becoming a hard, disciplined worker and a teetotaler his entire life. The Polk family moved to Tennesee in 1806 and it was in that state that Polk met his wife, Sarah Childress who he married in1824.

Sarah Childress Polk

He also began his political career as a Democrat who supported his fellow Tennesseean Andrew Jackson in the election of 1824. The two men developed a close friendship and Jackson supported Polk’s political career throughout his life.  Polk served as Representative from Tennessee from 1825 until 1839, becoming the chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee from 1833 to 1835 and Speaker of the House from 1835 to 1839. He went on to serve as Governor of Tennessee from 1839 to 1841. Polk was not, then a complete unknown, yet he did not have the resume that a potential president was expected to have. Previous presidents had served as Vice-President, Secretary of State,  Many presidents have since previously served as governors but so far no other Speaker of the House has become president. Polk went on to win the election of 1844, running against the much better known Whig candidate, Senator Henry Clay. It was a hard-fought and bitter election, but Polk won by a narrow margin, campaigning on a platform of manifest destiny and national expansion.

As president, James K. Polk accomplished more in his single term than many presidents have in two terms. He was a tireless worker, overseeing the operations of the federal government himself, relying only on his wife and nephew to assist him. James K Polk had four goals as president; reestablish the independent treasury system established by Jackson and Van Buren and ended by the Whigs, reduce the tariffs, settle the border of the Oregon Territory, and resolve the border dispute with Mexico. Polk accomplished all four of these goals by the end of his term, presiding over a successful war with Mexico and expanding the boundaries of the United States across the continent from sea to sea.

The first two items on Polk’s agenda were policies long supported by the Democratic Party. The Whigs, representing the interests of north-eastern industrialists had enacted high tariffs to protect the emerging American industry from foreign competition. The Democrats, which tended to be strongest in the agricultural South and West favored lower tariffs to discourage foreign retaliatory tariffs against American agricultural exports. Accordingly, President Polk had his Treasury Secretary, Robert J. Walker, draft a lower and more consistent set of tariff rates which narrowly passed Congress.

The Democrats also opposed any creation of the sort of central bank that the Whigs supported. Polk had assisted his mentor, Andrew Jackson in killing the Second Bank of the United States, and as president, Polk reestablished the Independent Treasury system that Jackson and Martin Van Buren had favored. In Polk’s system, the U. S. Treasury Department kept the public acted as a sort of central bank, keeping the federal revenues in its own facilities and managing the money supply. Polk’s Independent Treasury system lasted, with modifications until the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913.

President Polk’s foreign policy was less partisan than his domestic policies. A policy of national expansion was popular throughout the United States and both parties backed the doctrine that it was the manifest destiny of the United States to spread from sea to sea. At the time of Polk’s accession to the presidency, the borders of the United States with Great Britain in the Pacific Northwest and Mexico in the southwest were not clearly defined. President Polk promised to resolve the disputes with both nations, by war if necessary.

The Oregon Territory in the Northwest extended north to the line of latitude 54º40′. Both the United States and Great Britain claimed the territory, but since it was originally sparsely settled, except by the Indians who didn’t count, neither side had pressed its claim and the territory was jointly administered since the Treaty of 1818. As the territory was settled, this arrangement became untenable and it became obvious that the conflicting claims would have to be settled. Polk and the Democrats had campaigned on the slogan “54º40′ or fight!”, arguing that the entire Oregon Territory should go to the United States. If Britain was unwilling to cede its claim to the territory, then America should go to war. In fact, Polk had no intention of going to war with Britain. Relations with Mexico were rapidly deteriorating, making war increasingly likely, and Polk did not wish to fight two wars at the same time. For their part, the British did not want a war with the United States, and the two nations quickly agreed to divide the territory along the existing border between the United States and Canada at the 49th parallel in the Oregon Treaty.

54 40 or fight! Or not

President Polk would perhaps have preferred to resolve the disputes with Mexico over the boundaries of Texas and the Southwest with diplomacy offered to buy California and New Mexico, but the Mexicans, already humiliated by the annexation of Texas, were in no mood for negotiations. The ensuing Mexican War was Polk’s most controversial legacy and has been widely seen, then and since as an unwarranted act of aggression by the United States and attempt to expand slave territories. Whether or not Polk’s actions in provoking that was a subject for another post, but it cannot be denied that Polk proved to be a capable commander in chief appointing excellent commanding generals like Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott and prosecuting a successful war. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, America gained the Southwest, including the present-day states of California, Arizona, and New Mexico, bringing the United States of America to its present continental boundaries, except for the strip of land bought from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

President Polk declined to run for reelection in 1848. He had promised to serve only one term and he had accomplished everything he had intended as president. James Polk died on June 15 at the age of 53, just three months after he had left the White House. The cause of death is generally given as cholera, but Polk had been exhausted from his tireless work as president, and the true cause of death was overwork.

A president who kept all his promises and accomplished all his goals we could use a president like James K Polk again. He doesn’t deserve to be one of the forgotten presidents.

 


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