Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Good Friday

April 18, 2014

Today is Good Friday, the day of Jesus’s crucifixion. It may seem strange to call it “Good” Friday since being crucified wouldn’t normally be considered as part of a good day but the word good is used in an obsolete sense meaning holy. Good Friday is generally celebrated with fasts and vigils. In the Roman Catholic church no mass is held on this day.

Once again, I will be using the Gospel of Mark to tell the story.

Mark 15

Jesus Before Pilate

1Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.

2 “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

3 The chief priests accused him of many things. 4 So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”

5 But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.

6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8 The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, 10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

12 “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.

13Crucify him!” they shouted.

14 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:1-15)

It would seem that this meeting of the Sanhedrin at night and before Passover was highly irregular and some have questioned the historicity of the Gospel accounts on that basis. I think that if the elders and priests of the Sanhedrin believe Jesus to be on the point of declaring himself the Messiah and leading a rebellion, they might not have been too concerned with fine points of legality in the face of a national emergency. Little is known of Pontius Pilate but in the historical accounts of Josephus and others, he does not seem to be the sort of man who had any scruples about putting a trouble maker to death even if he wasn’t certain of the man’s guilt. It is possible that he was impressed by Jesus’s force of personality. On the other hand, Josephus makes it clear that Pilate was a tactless man who did not like the Jews much. He was eventually recalled because his actions seemed likely to cause rebellions. Perhaps Pilate resented having the High Priest and others, who he might have considered semi-barbarians, insist on his crucifying a man. He might have refused just to be obstinate.

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

The Crucifixion of Jesus

21 A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

27 They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. [28][a]29 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!” 31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! 32 Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.(Mark 15:16-32)

Luke has one of the thieves taking Jesus’s side.

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[d]

43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

Crucifixion is probably the most painful method method of execution ever devised. The victim is slowly asphyxiated as he hangs on the cross. It was not uncommon for a man to linger for days writhing in pain the whole time. In addition to the pain, crucifixion was meant to be a humiliating, shameful punishment. Only the lowest of the low were crucified, which might have been a stumbling block to early Christian proselytizing.

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).[b]

35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died,[c] he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph,[d] and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

Those words were the first verse of Psalm 22. Matthew’s account parallels Mark’s but Luke and John report different last words.

46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”[e] When he had said this, he breathed his last.  (Luke 23:46)

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.(John 19:28-30)

John adds another detail.

31 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,”[c]37 and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.” (John 19:31-37)

Strange as it may seem, the breaking of their legs was an act of mercy since they would die sooner. It was surprising that Jesus had died after only being about six hours on the cross.

42 It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. 46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid. (Mark 15:42-47)

To anyone on the scene, this must have seemed the end of the matter. Jesus of Nazareth was dead and his followers scattered. It would seem that, at best, he would only be a minor footnote in history.

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Holy Thursday

April 17, 2014

Easter Sunday is approaching and the Easter weekend begins today with Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday. This day commemorates Jesus’s last supper with his disciples. In the Roman Catholic church, they hold a chrism mass in each diocese in which the bishop consecrates the oils used in anointing of the sick, baptisms, etc.

The story of the last supper is found in all four Gospels with variations in detail. John has an extended discourse by Jesus in which he gives his final instructions to his disciples. John omits the introduction of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist which is described in the other three Gospels. I am going to quote from Mark since it is the shortest and fastest paced Gospel.

12On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

13 So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. 14 Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”

16 The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

17 When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.”

19 They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely you don’t mean me?”

20 “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. 21 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”

23 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.

24 “This is my blood of the[c] covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. 25 “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

26 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:12-26)

Various Christian denominations celebrate the Lord’s Supper in various ways. Many celebrate it every Sunday, others less often. The eucharist is a major source of controversy between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics take Jesus’s words literally and believe that the eucharist actually becomes the body and blood of Christ while Protestants believe it to be symbolic. This is the point of Catholic doctrine that Richard Dawkins was mocking at the Reason Rally.

27“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’[d]

28 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

29 Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

30 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice[e] you yourself will disown me three times.”

31 But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same. (Mark 14:27-31)

Despite their bluster, the disciples ran like scared rabbits when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus. Peter even denied knowing Jesus three times.

66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. 67When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.

“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

68 But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.[g]

69 When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” 70 Again he denied it.

After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

71 He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”

72 Immediately the rooster crowed the second time.[h] Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice[i] you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:66-72)

After the last supper Jesus and the disciples went to the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed.

32 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36“Abba,[f] Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

37 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

39 Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. 40 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.

41 Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” (Mark 14:32-42)

The betrayer is Judas, of course. They needed him to identify Jesus, since they wouldn’t want to arrest the wrong man. You might wonder why the Jewish leaders wanted to get rid of Jesus. It would  take another post to explain the historical and political background of first century Judea, but suffice it to say that they had good reason to fear anyone who might raise an insurrection against the Romans, since the Roman response would be devastating. The Jewish War, just forty years later showed their fears were justified.

43Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.

44 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” 45 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. 46 The men seized Jesus and arrested him. 47 Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

48 “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” 50 Then everyone deserted him and fled.

51 A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, 52 he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. (Mark 14:43-51)

The young man is not mentioned in any other Gospel and there is a tradition that he was Mark himself, who couldn’t resist mentioning himself. John identifies the disciple who attacked the guard as Peter.

10Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)

11 Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:10-11)

Luke mentions that Jesus healed the guard.

49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. (Luke 22:49-51)

Tomorrow the story continues with Good Friday.

 

 

Palm Sunday

April 13, 2014

Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of the climax of his earthly ministry.

Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King

1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matt 21:1-11)

Palm Sunday is often celebrated by palm leaves to worshippers in churches. If palm leaves are not available locally, than other tree branches may be substituted. In many churches the priest or other clergy blesses the palms and they are saved to be burned at Ash Wednesday the following year.

The actual date of Palm Sunday, like Easter varies from year to year because the date is based on a lunisolar cycle like the Hebrew calendar. The date differs between Western and Eastern Christianity because most Eastern churches still use the Julian calendar for their liturgical year, even though the Gregorian calendar is universally used for civil purposes.

Palm Sunday begins Holy Week, or the last week of Lent.

Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey

Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Ararat

April 1, 2014

Maybe it is because of the recent movie on the subject, but I seem to be writing a lot about Noah and his ark. I wrote about a possible shape of Noah’s ark about a week ago, and now I would like to write a little about where his ark ended up.

Mount Ararat is a mountain in the easternmost region of Turkey, close to Turkey’s border with Iran and Armenia. It is a dormant volcano with two peaks, Greater Ararat and Lesser Ararat with elevations of 16,854 and 12,782 feet respectively. Mount Ararat is the highest mountain of the Armenian plateau and the ancient Armenians revered the mountain as the home of their gods, much as  the ancient Greeks revered Mount Olympus. More recently, many Christians have believed that Mount Ararat is the place where Noah’s ark landed. There have even been expeditions over the years to try to find some remains of the ark. Despite urban legends to the contrary, the ark has never been found.Of course, you really couldn’t expect that a vessel made of wood would survive for thousands of years, but perhaps they are looking in the wrong place.

Ararat_3d_version_1

The actual account in Genesis reads:

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible. (Gen 8:1-5)

Notice that it says the mountains of Ararat. This does not seem to be a reference to a single mountain, nor is it likely that the ark would be large enough to extend across several mountains. If I were to say that the plane landed in the Rocky Mountains, I wouldn’t mean that the plane landed on a mountain called Rocky nor that the plane was perched atop several mountains. I would mean that the plane landed somewhere in the mountain ranges known as the Rockies. Similarly, the “mountains of Ararat” must refer to a mountainous region that the ark came to rest in.

So, where are the mountains of Ararat? In the Armenian plateau, between the River Tigris and the Caucasus Mountains, there was a kingdom, centered around Lake Van, known as Urartu. This kingdom began as a collection of tribes and kingdoms around 1200 BC. They were conquered by the Assyrians but reemerged as a united kingdom around 850, during a period of Assyrian weakness. They managed to resist the Assyrians until 745 when they were conquered again by Tiglath Pileser II. Urartu regained some independence, as a vasssl of Assyrian but they were subjected to invasions by the  Cimmerians, Scythians, and later the Medes. When the Assyrian Empire was overthrown, Urartu recovered its power somewhat until it was finally conquered and destroyed by the Persians around 590. The Phrygians and the ancestors of the Armenians settled in the region and Urartu ceased to exist. Modern Armenians trace their heritage back to Urartu, and it has come to play a role in Armenian nationalism.

13-Urartu-9-6mta

 

The story of Noah and the ark originated in the flat plain of Mesopotamia. The Sumerians realized that an ark or ship in a receding flood would more likely come to rest at a higher altitude than their own lowlands and the highlands that later came to be known as Urartu seemed a logical place. The Hebrews were, of course, familiar with the region of Urartu which was rendered Ararat in the Hebrew language.  Mount Ararat is, of course, to be found in the mountains or Ararat, but any searchers for the remains of Noah’s ark are going to have to look over an entire region rather than a single mountain.

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The Story of Mohammed, Islam Unveiled

March 28, 2014

After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, many of our political leaders took pains to assure us that Islam is a religion of peace. The nineteen men who committed the atrocities on that date were said to have followed an extreme version of Islam, a version not shared by the vast majority of peace loving Muslims. Many people, however, cannot help but wonder whether a religion whose adherents are responsible for most of the terrorism in the world today might not promote violence in its teachings. Being a religion with more than one and a half billion followers, contemporary Islam is of course very diverse. There are many, many Muslims who are indeed peaceful, and many who are not. How, then, can we determine whether the doctrines of Islam promote peace or violence?

One way, might be to go back and look at the founder of the religion. After all, a tree is known by its fruits. The Prophet Mohammed in Arabia founded Islam more than fourteen centuries ago. To this day, Muslims look upon him as a perfect man to be emulated. Stories of his sayings and deeds, known as the Hadiths, are second only to the Koran as a guide to Muslim behavior. So then, learning whether Mohammed was a man of peace or of war should go a long way in determining whether Islam is a religion of peace or of war.

That is just what Harry Richardson has done with his book The Story of Mohammed, Islam Unveiled. Mr. Richardson tells the story of the life of Mohammed using Islamic sources including the Koran. Along the way, he shows how Mohammed’s example is used by terrorists to justify their actions. For, Mohammed was not a man of peace. He and his religion were peaceful enough when they were a small sect in Mecca. After the move to Medina, where Mohammed took power, the new religion quickly became very violent and intolerant. Under Mohammed’s rule, any atrocity or betrayal was justified if it furthered the cause of Islam. As Mr. Richardson shows, this same ends justify the means mentality is still used by all too many people in the Islamic world.

islam

Harry Richardson covers most of the same ground as Robert Spencer does in his books about Islam. I think though, that Richardson’s approach is more accessible than Spencer’s. He begins with the assumption that the reader knows little or nothing about Islam and explains the results of his own research referring to his sources. Although Mr. Richard may have begun his studies knowing little about Islam, he was clearly spent a lot of time and effort educating himself. He is also less confrontational than Robert Spencer often has been.

I can strongly recommend that anyone interested in what is going on in the world of Islam read this book and then go on to read the Koran and other Islamic scriptures. If we are to prevent more attacks, we need accurate information about those who regard us as the enemies of Allah. Our leaders are not interested in telling us the truth about Islam, so we must educate ourselves. Harry Richardson’s book is a good place to begin.

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Don’t Tread on Me

March 25, 2014

Organizing for Action wants to give me a free bumper sticker.

tread

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a parody of the Gadsden flag often seen at Tea Party rallies.

250px-Gadsden_flag.svg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gadsden flag dates from the Revolutionary War. It was designed by Christopher Gadsden in 1775 and was one of the first flags used by Americans until the Stars and Stripes. Benjamin Franklin explained the significance of using a rattlesnake as a symbol for the American spirit.

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?

It makes a lot more sense than his proposal that the new nation’s national bird be the turkey.

Notice the difference in significance of the two symbols. The one, the Gadsden Flag, shows nothing more than a desire to be left alone, with the implied threat to those that meddle. The other, the Obamacare Sticker shows a desire for services paid for by other people. Has the American character really degenerated so far?

Perhaps this image from the People’s Cube might work better.

Tread_Obamacare_Hammer_Sickle

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Shape of Noah’s Ark

March 23, 2014

If I mention Noah’s ark, you probably imagine a structure that looks something like this.

noahs-ark-afloat

This image of the ark owes more to popular imagination than the actual instructions in Genesis. Although God gave Noah guidelines to the size and composition of the ark, He didn’t really specify the shape of the ark.

14 So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. 15 This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.16 Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. (Gen 6:14-16)

The NIV and many other modern translations use cypress to translate the Hebrew word gopher. It is not certain what kind of wood gopher actually refers to and older translations often simply transliterated the word. I would prefer they use the term gopher. A cubit is a translation of the Hebrew word ammah. Both the Latin cubitus and the Hebrew ammah are a measurement based on the length of the fore arm, from the elbow to the finger or wrist. Ancient measurements were seldom standardized but a we may think of a cubit as about eighteen inches. This would make the dimensions of the ark about 450 feet long, 50 feet wide and 30 feet high, or in metric terms about 137 x 23 x 14 meters.

It is not clear whether a wooden vessel with such dimensions would actually be seaworthy. There are, of course, many modern ships which dwarf Noah’s ark, including aircraft carriers, cruise ships and super tankers, but they are made of steel, which is stronger than wood. Another problem with large wooden ships is that  longer timbers flex allowing water to leak in. According to Wikipedia, one of  the longest purely wooden ship that actually sailed was the Wyoming with a length of 329 feet. The planks in this ship twisted in heavy weather so the crew had to continually pump out the leaking sea water. It sank in 1924 with all hands lost. In the nineteenth century, there were  the HMS Orlando and the HMS Mersey at 335 feet. Their length made them all but useless and they were eventually decommissioned and sold for scrap. There have been other wooden ships of similar size or larger, but for the most part they used some iron or steel in their constructions or they did not actually sail in the open sea. There are historical records of even larger vessels in ancient times, but these accounts cannot be confirmed and were likely exaggerated.

It would seem, then, that Noah’s Ark as it is usually imagined isn’t likely to have survived the great flood and to have stayed afloat the the year or so it took for the waters to recede, unless the ark was miraculous or gopher wood had properties not found in any contemporary type of lumber. So, must we regard the story of Noah’s ark as purely legendary? Perhaps. Or, perhaps Noah’s ark was not built in quite the way it is usually pictured. This leads me at last to this report at Fox News about the possible appearance of the ark.

In Darren Aronofksy’s forthcoming epic “Noah,” the vessel by which the biblical hero saves himself, his family, and pairs of animals from the apocalyptic flood appears like a huge shipping container standing some 50 feet tall and 500 feet long.

The design was inspired by “going back to what God tells Noah in the Bible,” Aronofksy said in a behind-the-scenes featurette recently released by Paramount.

The problem is, Russell Crowe’s Noah might have gotten the wrong instruction manual.

The original Noah’s Ark was a giant round vessel, says a script on an 3,700-old clay tablet now on display at the British Museum in London.

Found in the Middle East in the late 1940s by Leonard Simmons, who then passed it to his son Douglas, the cracked, smartphone-sized tablet consists of 60 lines in cuneiform. It was translated by Irving Finkel, curator of the British Museum’s 130,000 Mesopotamian clay tablet collection.

The tablet turned out to be a detailed construction manual for building an ark with palm-fiber ropes, wooden ribs and coated in hot bitumen to make it waterproof.

The vessel, however, was round.

“The Babylonians of around 1750 believed the ark in the flood story was a giant version of the type of coracle that they actually used on the rivers,” Finkel told Discovery News.

The coracle described in the tablet was “the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 square meters, and 6-meter high walls,” Finkel said.

“A round boat makes perfect sense in Mesopotamia where round boats are likely to have been used on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It would not have made much sense in the Levant where you don’t have rivers like that,” Elizabeth Stone, an anthropology professor at New York’s Stony Brook University, told Discovery News.

Indeed, a waterproofed coracle would never sink.

“Being round isn’t a problem — it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat,” Finkel wrote in his British Museum blog.

This makes a lot of sense. I would guess, without knowing much about ship building, that a round vessel would be better able to withstand rough seas and flooding. It might be more difficult to steer, but Noah wasn’t trying to get anywhere. This is even some Biblical reason for believing the ark was not shaped like a sea going ship. The Hebrew word that is translated into ark is teba, which is used in only one other place in the Bible, to describe the basket that Moses’s mother placed the infant Moses in to save him from Pharaoh.

 Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.

Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said. (Ex 2:1-6)

This basket was, perhaps, a small coracle, such as was used for river travel. The ark, then, could have been a very large coracle. The idea behind Noah’s ark was not so much a ship for traveling by sea as a refuge against a disaster.

Incidentally, the Hebrew word for the Ark of the Covenant, the one Indiana Jones was looking for is aron. If Strong’s Hebrew dictionary of the Bible is correct than the Biblical Hebrew word for ship was oniy.

This, does not, of course mean that the story of Noah’s ark and a global flood is literally true, though perhaps it adds a bit of credibility to the story. Irving Finkel  doesn’t believe it, though.

“I do not believe the ark really existed,” Finkel said.

“I think that the flood story echoes the memory of a real devastation but that the ark is a component of the mythology that developed to avert the fear of its happening again,” he concluded.

I think there is a lot more to the story than a vague memory of a disaster and a myth developed to reassure people, but that is a topic for another time.

 

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Intellectuals

March 19, 2014

In his Republic, Plato had Socrates arguing that in order to create an ideal city-state of perfect justice either philosophers must be kings or kings must become philosophers. In other words, the only rulers of a truly just state must be philosopher-kings. Only the philosopher has the inner vision required to rule justly.

The example of history seems to have shown that rule by philosopher-kings is more likely to be the worst and most tyrannical form of government. There have been few, if any, actual kings who have been philosophers or philosophers who have been kings, to be sure, but governments ruled by an inner vision of perfect justice have proved to be devastating in terms of human lives and freedom. The history of the twentieth century ought to have proved that beyond any doubt.

Despite the example of history and common sense, there remains a class of individuals who believe that they and they alone, possess the inner vision needed to reform or remake society into a utopia of perfect justice. These individuals have seldom possessed political power, but through their writings and thoughts have had an enormous influence on the society around them. These individuals are often referred to as intellectuals.

Paul Johnson profiles a few of these overly influential people in his book Intellectuals. As Johnson notes at the beginning, there have always been people who have held themselves as having a special capacity to determine proper behavior and beliefs and to use this capacity to enlighten their neighbors. These intellectuals, generally priests or teachers were limited by tradition or official doctrine. A preacher could try to create heaven on Earth, but his view of Heaven was determined by scripture or tradition. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the influence of religion in the West declined, and the cleric was gradually replaced by the secular intellectual.

intellectuals

These secular intellectuals were quite different from their predecessors. Rather than upholding traditional rules and authority, these new intellectuals sought to tear down the old to make way for a new world based upon their inner visions of justice and reason. It is these people that Johnson writes about. He begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and continues with such diverse individuals as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others. These individuals have been very different in their ideas and lives, yet there are some striking similarities, as Johnson notes. These intellectuals all believed that they should not be bound by the same rules as others. Instead, they needed complete freedom from mundane cares to work out their ideas. They professed to be great lovers of humanity, yet didn’t seem to like the people around them very much, often using their associates as tools.

Some might object that Paul Johnson spends too much time on his subjects’ scandalous private lives. One might argue that a thinker ought to be judged by the quality of his ideas rather than the sordidness of his private life. To a great extent, this is true, yet a person’s private and public life cannot really be separated that easily. The private lives of these intellectuals were either a reflection of their philosophy, in which case that life shows the real-life effects of that philosophy, or they were unable to live up to the ideals of their philosophy, which implies that perhaps no human being could live up to such ideals.

Most of the people profiled by Johnson might be considered somewhat “left wing” in their politics. This might be because of Paul Johnson’s own political prejudices, but I think that it is also likely that the sort of person who wishes to remake civilization according to his own wishes is far more likely to be drawn to progressive politics. A conservative intellectual, would perhaps, be more inclined to defend and preserve traditional institutions rather than tear them down to be remade. One exception to this rule might be the example of Ayn Rand. She was not a defender of tradition despite her defense of capitalism and she sought, through her Objectivist philosophy, to undo the past two-thousand years of “altruist” Judeo-Christian ethics, so perhaps she fits the pattern of the intellectuals better than it might appear at first glance. It is a pity that Paul Johnson did not include her with the intellectuals since the unreality of some aspects of her philosophy and her wretched treatment of most of her associated made her a better example than some of the people he did include.

I have no complaints about Intellectuals, however. It is a book that anyone who believes that the right sort of ideas or the right sort of people could usher in a perfect world would do well to read this book.

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How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?

March 17, 2014

This is a question that is supposed to have been hotly debated throughout the Middle Ages. The idea is that instead studying questions that might be of some use to people, the scholastic philosophers and theologians of the High Middle Ages debated abstruse questions that could not be decided by any evidence and made no difference to anyone living in the real world. This question has become a byword for any intellectual endeavor that is abstract and meaningless.

In fact, the Scholastics specialized in using logic and reason to discuss all sorts of philosophical issues and to reconcile contradictions in philosophy and theology. They were particularly concerned to resolve the differences between ancient Greek philosophy, especially the newly discovered teachings of Aristotle, and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Their method was usually to ask a question concerning some philosophical point. Arguments contrary to official dogma would first be given, then the official or generally accepted position would be stated, with arguments in its favor, and finally the opponents arguments would be rebutted. These arguments often took the form of citations from the Bible or writings of the Church fathers, but a rigorous system of logic was used to explain and expound on the citations and logic was used to reconcile or reject positions. The doctrines of the Catholic Church were not upheld by faith alone or the authority of the Church. Since the Scholastics held that reason and faith both pointed to the same Truth, reason could and should be used to defend the faith. Perhaps the best example of the Scholastic method would be Thomas Aquinas‘s Summa Theologica. In his masterpiece, he examines point after point of Catholic doctrine in the way I explained.

This Scholastic method could be used with other subjects, including the natural sciences. The work that the Scholastics did was not quite what we call science. They were more interested in abstract reasoning about observations than in performing experiments. While the Scholastics made many contributions to mathematics, including introducing Arabic numerals to the West, the extensive use of mathematics to describe and explain  the natural world generally had to wait until the time of Galileo.  Modern science is only possible if you believe that the universe is an orderly, reasonable place that can be studied using reason and observation. By emphasizing rather than rejecting the use of reason, the Scholastics laid the foundation for the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

To get back to the subject, although medieval theologians were much concerned about angelology, including the question of whether angels take up physical space and whether an angel traveling from point A to point B travels through the points between, there is no evidence that the questions of how many angels dance on the head of a pin or the point of a needle was ever seriously debated. It is most likely that the question was made up by later critics of Scholastic philosophy to demonstrate the supposed stupidity and triviality of Medieval thinking. It might also have been a joke among the Scholastics or the type of riddle that students might ask to trip up their professors, perhaps something like the question, “what happens when an irresistible force meets an immoveable object”.

So, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I had always thought that the number must be infinite since angels   are not composed of mass or energy and do not take up any physical space. I may be wrong, however, since I have not taken quantum effects into account. Recent research in quantum angelology, a field of theological physics, indicates that the number is, in fact, finite. The Pauli exclusion principle prevents any two angels from occupying the same quantum states. Angels may not have any mass, but they do contain information and any individual angel cannot be smaller than the Planck length of 1.616 X 10 -34  meters. According to the  article I linked to, the maximum number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin is 8.6766 X 10 49 angels.

angels-on-pin

8.6766X10 49 angels are dancing on this pin.

 

 

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Saint Patrick’s Day

March 17, 2014

Today is St. Patrick‘s day and I thought it might be appropriate to write about St. Patrick. So, who is St. Patrick and why does he get a day? Not very much is known for certain about his life. It is possible that his story has been confused with one Palladius, a missionary who became the first bishop of Ireland. Still, Patrick wrote a short autobiography called “The Declaration” or “The Confession” as part of a letter which seems to be genuine.

Get out snakes!

Patrick, or Patricius was a Roman who lived in Britain. He may have been born around 387 and lived until 460 or possibly 493, so he lived during the twilight of the Roman Empire in the West. At the age of 16 he was captured by raiders and enslaved. He worked as a shepherd in Ireland for about six years. He managed to escape and return to his home, but then he became a priest and returned to the land where he was a slave and worked to convert the pagans to Christianity. He seems to have been very successful during his lifetime, though there were many other missionaries in Ireland. He helped to organize the Church in Ireland and is supposed to have traveled to Rome to seek the Pope’s assistance in this endeavor.

According to legend, Patrick died on March 17, so that date has become his feast day. He has never been officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. He became known as a saint long before the modern procedure for canonization was developed. He is, obviously, the patron saint of Ireland, and also Nigeria, Montserrat, engineers, paralegals, and the dioceses of New York, Boston, and Melbourne.

There are many legends about St. Patrick. The most widely known is that he chased all the snakes out of Ireland, thus ruining the local ecology. Another is that he used the example of the three-leaved shamrock to illustrate the trinity.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all the Irish, and Irish at heart, out there!

Sorry about the green text. I couldn’t resist.

 

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