Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Pi Day

March 14, 2018
English: Pi Pie, created at Delft University o...

English: Pi Pie, created at Delft University of Technology, applied physics, seismics and acoustics Deutsch: Pi Pie (π-Kuchen), hergestellt an der Technischen Universität Delft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For all of the nerds out there, including me, today is international Pi Day, the day when we celebrate our favorite mathematical constant. Pi Day is best celebrated by pi memorization contests, walking in circles, and, of course, eating pies, or is it pis? I think I will celebrate by writing a little about pi.

Pi or π is, as everyone should know, the ratio between a circle’s diameter and its circumference. Pi is an irrational number. By this, they do not mean that pi makes no sense but rather that pi is a constant that cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers. Numbers like 2 or .445 or 1/2 can be expressed as a ratio of two integers and so are rational. Numbers like pi or the square root of any number that is not a perfect square, the square root of 2 for instance, are irrational. An irrational number expressed in decimal form never ends or repeats but continues to infinity. Thus, there can never be a last digit of pi.

The symbol π was first by the mathematician William Jones in 1706 and was popularized by another mathematician, Leonhard Euler. They chose π, the Greek equivalent of the Latin letter p, because it is the first letter of the word periphery. Π, by the way is not pronounce “pie” in Greek but “pee”, just like our p. I don’t think that international “pee” day would be nearly so appealing.

Although the symbol for pi is relatively recent, the concept is very old. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians knew about it. Pi is even mentioned in the Bible.

23 He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits[o] to measure around it. 24 Below the rim, gourds encircled it—ten to a cubit. The gourds were cast in two rows in one piece with the Sea. (1 Kings 7:23-24)

Properly speaking, the line around the “Sea” should have been 31.5 cubits but the ancient Hebrews were not very knowledgeable about geometry and measuring techniques were crude.

There is no particular reason to calculate pi to so many digits. No conceivable application of pi would possibly take more than 40 digits. Still, the challenge of calculating pi to the farthest digit possible has been an irresistible one for mathematicians over the years.

Around 250 BC, Archimedes was the first mathematician to seriously try to calculate pi. He used a geometric method of drawing polygons inside and outside a circle and measuring their perimeters. By using polygons with more and more sides he was able to calculate pi with more precision and ended determining the value of pi as somewhere between 3.1408 and 3.1429. Archimedes’s method was used in the west for more than a eighteen hundred years. The Chinese and Indians used similar methods. The best result using the geometric method was the calculation of pi to 38 digits in 1630.

With the development of calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the 1660’s it was possible to calculate pi using infinite series, or the sum of the terms of an infinite sequence. The best calculations with these methods were done by the mathematician Zacharias Daze who calculated pi to 200 places in 1844 and William Shanks who spent fifteen years to calculate pi to 707 digits. Unfortunately he made a mistake with the 528 digit. Meanwhile, in 1761 Johann Heinrich Lambert proved that pi is irrational.

Computers made the calculation of pi much faster so pi could be calculated to more digits. ENIAC calculated pi to 2037 places in 1949. This record didn’t last long. A million digits were reached 1970. As of  2011, pi has been calculated to 10,000,000,000,050 places.

Pi is not just used in geometry. There are a number of applications of pi in the fields of statistics, mechanics, thermodynamics, cosmology, and many others. Here is a list of just some of the formulae that use pi. It seems you can find pi everywhere.

With that in mind then, happy pi day! For your enjoyment here are the first thousand digits of pi.

3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510
  58209749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679
  82148086513282306647093844609550582231725359408128
  48111745028410270193852110555964462294895493038196
  44288109756659334461284756482337867831652712019091
  45648566923460348610454326648213393607260249141273
  72458700660631558817488152092096282925409171536436
  78925903600113305305488204665213841469519415116094
  33057270365759591953092186117381932611793105118548
  07446237996274956735188575272489122793818301194912
  98336733624406566430860213949463952247371907021798
  60943702770539217176293176752384674818467669405132
  00056812714526356082778577134275778960917363717872
  14684409012249534301465495853710507922796892589235
  42019956112129021960864034418159813629774771309960
  51870721134999999837297804995105973173281609631859
  50244594553469083026425223082533446850352619311881
  71010003137838752886587533208381420617177669147303
  59825349042875546873115956286388235378759375195778
  18577805321712268066130019278766111959092164201989
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Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2018
English: Saint Valentine kneeling

Valentine?

Today is Valentine’s Day, or St. Valentine‘s Day. Who was Valentine and why does he get a day named after him? The truth is, nobody really knows.Valentine or Valentinus was the name of an early Christian saint and martyr. The trouble is that nothing is known of him except his name. He may have been a Roman priest who was martyred in 269. There was a Valentine who was bishop of Terni who may have been the same man. St. Valentine was dropped from the Roman calendar of Saints in 1969 because of these uncertainties but local churches may still celebrate his day.

It is also not certain how Valentine’s day became associated with love. Some have speculated that the holiday was a Christian substitute for the Roman festival of Lupercalia. However, there is no hint of any association of Valentine’s Day with romance until the time of Chauncer. The holiday seems to have really taken off with the invention of greeting cards.

. Valentine postcard, circa 1900–1910

The Map of Slavery

February 13, 2018

Take a look at this map.

As the article in Ranker.com states, this is a map produced by the US Coast Survey which depicts the proportion of the residents of each county in the South who were slaves, the darker the shading, the higher the percentage of slaves. The darkest areas, along the Mississippi and some other regions, were counties with more than ninety percent of their population in bondage. This map clearly shows the extent in which the rural South had become dependent on slave labor, particularly in those regions most suitable for the establishment of large plantations. In many such regions, the Black slaves outnumbered the White population. The population of slaves in such urban regions that existed in the Old South along with areas, such as the Appalachian Mountains and West Texas that were ill suited for plantation agriculture was far lower.

While interesting in itself, this map of slavery might also provide an clue which tells us just what why the South seceded and what they were really fighting for in the Civil War.

It is not easy to determine just how many people in the South actually were in favor of secession. Public opinion polls did not exist yet. In most cases, the Southern states seceded by calling for special conventions of elected delegates, who voted on the question of secession. Obviously, the men who were sent to these conventions were already predisposed to be in favor of secession, but the actual votes were closer than one might expect, given the controversy that the election of Abraham Lincoln had produced throughout the South. It is possible that if enough time had been allowed for passions to cool, and for the Southern leaders opposed to secession to organize, the secession crisis might have been averted. As it was the Secessionists moved quickly and there is evidence that they acted to intimidate opponents of succession in some areas.

Still, while support for secession was far from unanimous in the South, it is likely that a majority of the people throughout the South did support secession. There was considerable regional variation, though. In general, it seems that the support for secession was greatest in the seven states of the Lower South who were the first to secede. There was likely less support for secession in the four states of the Upper South which succeeded later, as war became imminent Eastern Tennessee and Western Virginia were notorious for their pro-Union sentiments, and the western counties of Virginia themselves succeeded to form the state of West Virginia. Of the four slave states that stayed in the Union, only Delaware with almost no actual slaves had no movement towards succession, while the remaining three had at least enough people opposed to succession to keep their states in the Union, although there was enough support for succession in Missouri and Kentucky for there to be a Civil War within each state.

Now, if you look at that map of slavery again, you may notice that, in general, support for succession tended to be highest in those regions that that were most dependent on slave labor. Since the end of the Civil War, there have been those who have argued that secession and the Civil War were not about slavery. The Civil War was fought over states’ rights or the economic policies of the North, particularly the high, protective tariffs Northern manufacturers favored. This map gives the lie to such assertions. Support for the Confederacy was highest where slaves were most numerous. Where slavery was rare, so was enthusiasm for secession. If you don’t believe what the Southern leaders themselves said about their reasons for succession, believe what the map shows, a clear link between slavery and succession.

That is not to say that slavery was the only cause of the secession and Civil War, nor that the men who fought for the Confederate States did so in order to protect the institution of slavery. There were a lot of other factors, both political and economic, behind the sectional tensions between North and South, but slavery was the one issue that made compromise impossible. They might be able to meet each other half way on issues like tariffs, but slavery was a moral issue which aroused people’s emotions. The country could not remain half slave and half free. It is true that most of the men who enlisted in the Confederate Army were only fighting for their country, but the way wouldn’t have been fought at all if it were not for slavery.

The American Civil War was fought over slavery. There is simply no way to deny it without completely ignoring the historical evidence. The men who fought for the South May have been brave and honorable, but they were fighting for the worst cause imaginable.

The Election of 1864

January 7, 2018

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the election of 1864 is that is happened at all. The nation was in the middle of the worst crisis in its history, a bloody civil war. No nation had ever conducted elections in such circumstances before and it would not have been unexpected for President Lincoln to postpone the election until the end of the war. Lincoln must have been tempted. As 1864 began. he knew that he had little chance of winning reelection. Both the president and the war had become very unpopular. It is true that the twin Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg the previous July had been turning points in the war that had made Southern defeat all but inevitable, but no one knew that at the time. All they knew was that the war was dragging on month after month with seemingly nothing to show for all the death and misery. Whatever thoughts Abraham Lincoln might have had about his upcoming defeat, he doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility of cancelling or postponing the election. In his view, the whole point of the war was to preserve the free, democratic government of the people, and postponing the election would mean that the rebels had won.

It wasn’t even clear that Lincoln would win the Republican nomination. Many prominent Republicans, most notably Horace Greeley  and Salmon P. Chase thought so little of Lincoln’s chances that they called for him to step aside and allow the Republicans to nominate someone who actually had a chance of winning. On May 31, 1864 several hundred of the more radical Republicans assembled in Cleveland, Ohio to form what they called the Radical Democracy Party. They believed that Lincoln was being too soft on the South and took a hardline anti-Confederate, abolitionist position. The Radical Democracy Party did not really expect to win the election. Instead, they hoped to force the Republicans to choose someone other than Lincoln. To this end, they nominated John C. Fremont, the Republican candidate for president in 1856, for president and war Democrat General John Cochrane for Vice-President. Fremont and Cochrane suspended their campaign in September to avoid becoming the possibility of dividing the vote resulting in a Democratic victory.

The remaining Republicans met in Baltimore on June 7-8, along with some War Democrats to form the National Union Party. Lincoln was nominated for a second term on the first ballot and the party platform called for the end of slavery and vigorous pursuit of the war until the succeeding states were defeated. The convention then selected the Democrat Andrew Johnson as a show of national unity.

Andrew Johnson was a little unusual in Southern politics since he did not come from the established, slave-owning,planter aristocracy like most Southern politicians. Johnson had been born in poverty among the lowest class of Southern Whites, but he was smart, ambitious and hard working. He entered Tennessee politics as a champion of the working men and became a Congressman from 1843 to 1853, Governor of Tennessee from 1853 to 1857 and finally Senator in 1857. Because of his humble origins, Andrew Johnson had little use for the secessionist sentiments held by many Planters was the only Senator from the South not to resign his seat when his state seceded. It should not be thought, however, that Johnson was opposed to slavery or at all sympathetic to the Black slaves. Johnson, like most of his class, despised the Blacks worse than the Planters, who at least saw their slaves as useful servants. Johnson’s bigotry would not serve his country well in the years after the Civil War.

The Democrats, for their part, met in Chicago from August 29 to 31. The Democrats were split between War Democrats who supported the war against the South and Peace Democrats who either favored a negotiated end to the war with the South rejoining the Union or who were outright Copperheads, or Southern sympathizers. The Peace Democrats wrote the party platform, declaring the war a failure and calling for an immediate, negotiated end to hostilities, but the convention nominated General George B. McClellan, former commanding general of the Army of the Potomac for president.

George B. McClellan had no political experience but he was an excellent officer with a distinguished record of service in the Mexican War and the Civil War. In many ways, McClellan was a great general. His experience working with railroads between the wars helped him to set up the supply lines to feed and arm the Union armies. He trained and drilled the Army of the Potomac into the military force that would ultimately defeat the Confederates. He loved the men and they loved him. McClellan had only one fault. He did not want to fight.

This is one of the great mysteries of the Civil War, McClellan’s strange reluctance to lead his men into battle. He was always delaying. He was not a coward on the battlefield, but it may be that he feared failure. Perhaps he believed the exaggerated estimates of Confederate numbers, or he believed the myth that Robert E. Lee was an unbeatable genius.  Whatever the reason, McClellan’s “slows” finally exasperated Lincoln to the point that he relieved McClellan of his command twice, so there may have been an element of personal satisfaction in McClellan’s decision to run against his former Commander-in-Chief.

After selecting a War Democrat as their presidential nominee, the Democrats balanced the ticket by selecting anti-war Democrat Ohio Congressman George H. Pendleton. Pendleton had served in the Ohio Senate from 1854 to 1856 and then the US House of Representatives from 1857 to 1865. Pendleton had been a staunch supporter of state’s rights and so was against a war to bring the seceded states back into the Union.

As one might expect, the presidential campaign of 1864 was a nasty fight. The opposition press had never been kind to Lincoln, routinely calling him a tyrant and a dictator and they didn’t let up for the campaign. Lincoln was said to be an ignorant, backwoods lawyer who delighted in telling indecent jokes. He was a tyrant and a butcher whose incompetence caused the nation to fight losing war. The Republicans responded by calling the Democrats defeatists, cowards, and traitors who sympathized with the Rebels. This didn’t seem like much of an exaggeration with the Democrat’s peace platform all but calling for peace at any price. McClellan, to his credit, rejected the Democratic call for peace stating that he could not look his comrades in the army that had sacrificed so much and tell them it was all in vain. The nation was so weary of a seemingly endless and bloody war that peace at any price seemed very attractive and few people doubted that Lincoln would be defeated. Lincoln himself certainly didn’t and he began to make preparations for the inevitable transition.

The political situation changed almost over night with the capture of Atlanta by General William Sherman on September 2, followed up by Sherman’s March to the Sea This Northern victory coupled with Union advances elsewhere seemed to show that an end to the Civil War with a Northern victory was in sight, shifting public opinion decisively in favor of Lincoln.

The results of the election in November were not even close. Lincoln won 2,218,388  popular votes (55%), a decisive majority  and won all but three states for 221 electoral votes. McClellan got 1,812,807 votes (45%) and won only Kentucky, New Jersey, and Delaware giving him only 21 electoral votes. Naturally the seceded states did not vote in this election, although Louisiana and Tennessee were under military occupation and did participate. Their electoral votes were not counted.

The Election of 1864

Lincoln had a clear mandate to continue the war until the Rebels were defeated. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated for his second term on March 4, 1865, Southern defeat was inevitable, although the Confederates kept fighting for another month. On April 2, Richmond, the Confederate capital was taken and on April 9, General Lee surrendered to General Grant, effectively ending the American Civil War. Lincoln didn’t get to enjoy the peace for long. On April 14, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth and Andrew Johnson became president.

The Nativity According to Mark

December 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

(Mark 1:1-8)

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

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

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

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

(Mark 1:9-15)

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ

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

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

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

There is a lot of talk, these days, about the War on Christmas by secular Grinches who are somehow offended when someone says “Merry Christmas”. 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 Nativity According to Matthew

December 20, 2017
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 sorsorers, 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 phenomonem and one that cannot be studied today. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas.

 

 

 

The Nativity According to Luke

December 19, 2017

Here is what Christmas is all about

 

Linus quotes from the Gospel according to Luke. There are two accounts of Jesus’s birth in the New Testament, the account that Luke gives and the account that Matthew gives. Mark ignores the question of Jesus’s birth entirely, preferring to begin with Jesus’s public ministry while John actually begins his account before the nativity and moves from there to Jesus’s career. Here is Luke’s account.

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)

There is a considerable amount of skepticism regarding 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. There would have been no need for her to travel. As a woman, her residency would not have mattered much.

 

The Story of Hanukah

December 12, 2017

Hanukah begins at sunset today, so I thought I would write a little about this holiday. Hanukah is the Jewish Festival of Lights. It is an eight day celebration which lasts from the twenty-fifth day on 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 Hanukah are celebrated December 12-20.

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 matter might be, I wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah.

Thanksgiving

November 23, 2017

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. It is most unfortunate that this day has become little more than an excuse to gorge on turkey. Even worse, the obscenity known as Black Friday has begun to creep back into the holiday making what ought to be a day of giving thanks to the deity a day of frenzied shopping. We in America have perhaps more to be thankful for than any other nation in history and we are probably the biggest ingrates.

Well, anyway, the whole mythology surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday,with the turkey meal, etc is based on the Thanksgiving celebration held by the settlers of Plymouth colony in 1621. They had a lot to be thankful for. These Pilgrims had decided to immigrate to the New World so that they could practice their religion freely. They had intended to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River but their departure from England on the Mayflower had been delayed and the trip across the Atlantic had been rough. They reached America farther north then they had intended,at Provincetown Harbor in November 1620. While they did not really have a legal right to create a colony in what is now Massachusetts, no one really wanted to spend the winter at sea so on December 21, 1620 the Pilgrims began to build the settlement at Plymouth.

Model of a 17th century English merchantman sh...

Would you spend any more time in a leaky ship like this than you had to? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first winter at the new colony was very hard. About half of the colonists had died by spring. By what must have seemed incredible luck or divine providence, the colonists were able to make contact with two Natives who could speak English. One of these was named Samoset and he had learned some English from English trappers and fishermen. He introduced the Pilgrims to the other man, Squanto, who had a truly remarkable life. Captured by Englishmen, he was taken to England and instructed in the English language in the hope that he could serve as an interpreter. When he was brought back to New England, he was captured again, this time by members of John Smith’s expedition who planned to sell captured Indians as slaves in Spain. In Spain, some friars learned of this plan and had the Indians freed and instructed in the Catholic religion. Squanto was able to make his way back to England and then across the Atlantic. There, he discovered that his whole tribe had been destroyed by the diseases, probably smallpox, that the Europeans had already unwittingly brought to the New World.

Squanto was willing to help the Pilgrims and taught what they needed to know to survive in New England.The harvest in the summer of 1621 was good enough that the Pilgrims did not need to fear starvation that winter. They had a feast that Autumn to celebrate their good fortune and to give thanks to God. This celebration was not considered to be anything very remarkable. Thanksgiving celebrations were fairly common at the time, especially among people who had successfully made the difficult and dangerous voyage across the ocean. It was not really the first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon G...

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). The First Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were proclamations of thanksgiving at various times in American history, especially during the Revolutionary War, but the holiday we know of as Thanksgiving really began in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that a national day of Thanksgiving was to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November. It might not seem that there was all that much to be thankful for in the middle of the Civil War but the tide was turning in the North’s favor after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg that July and the country was continuing to grow in strength and prosperity despite the horrors of the war. Lincoln’s proclamation set the date for the national holiday that has been celebrated ever since. Franklin Roosevelt set the date a week earlier in 1939 in the hope that an earlier date would mean a longer shopping season for Christmas, thus helping the economy still mired in the Great Depression. This was not without controversy and in October 1941 Congress officially set the date of Thanksgiving on the fourth, and almost always the last, Thursday in November.

So,enjoy your turkey but please spare a moment or two to give thanks to the deity you worship. If you happen to be an American you really are one of the luckiest people on Earth.

Refuse Fascism

November 2, 2017

Be sure to mark November 4 on your calendar because that is the day the revolution begins. Massive street demonstrations all over the country will drive the Fascist Trump/Pence regime out of power. At least, that is what the good people at Refuse Fascism hope will happen.

In less than a week, it begins; in 19 cities across the country, we will unite with courage and conviction, overcoming fear and uncertainty, to put a stop to the grave danger that the Trump/Pence regime poses to the world. Only the people acting together in non-violent mass protest, raising the demand that this regime must step down from power, can end this nightmare.

We are right to do this. For the survival of millions of people around the world, we must do this. For the rights of women to determine the course of their own lives, we must do this. For a future on this planet for all of our children, we must do this. If we don’t want to see white supremacist mob rule, in the government or in the streets, we must do this. For every group that is demonized and targeted by this regime, for whom this regime is already a brutal nightmare, we must do this. Our actions reflect the values of respect for all of humanity and the world we want – in stark contrast to the hate and bigotry of the Trump/Pence fascist regime.

These days, whenever I see someone using the word “Fascism”, I cannot help but think of Inigo Montoya’s line from the Princess Bride. I do not think they have the slightest idea what Fascism actually is.

 


Fascism is not a general term of abuse to be hurled against Conservatives, or whoever you do not like. Fascism is a word that describes a particular social and political ideology. According to Dictionary.com, Fascism is:

a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.

Politically, a Fascist state is a one party totalitarian state ruled by a charismatic dictator, in which the government claims total control over the lives of the citizen’s while those citizens have no rights the government is obliged to respect. Fascist economic policy is essentially anti-free market Socialism that while permitting private ownership of the economy controls it to such an extent that such ownership is largely nominal.

Is Trump a Fascist? Of course not. Trump has not suspended the constitution, abolished opposition parties, thrown dissidents in prison, or anything or the sort. Like it or not Donald Trump won the election and is the duly elected President of the United States.  Setting aside his often ill-conceived words, Trump’s actions as president have been entirely what one might expect of a slightly right of center president. If Donald Trump weren’t Trump, little of what he is doing would be controversial.

There are no mainstream figures in American politics who could even remotely be considered Fascists. There is no American Fascist Party. There are no politicians describing themselves as Fascists. The people who claiming to be fighting Fascism can go home. They have no one to fight.

I have to wonder what groups like Refuse Fascism hope to accomplish with these protests. The President’s term of office is set by the constitution at four years. Unless Donald Trump is impeached and convicted of a crime or resigns, he will be president in 2020 regardless of how many people are protesting against him. There is no constitutional provision for a do-over election. If both Donald Trump and Mike Pence resign or are removed from office, there is a clear line of succession  established by the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. If the President and Vice-President are unable to serve, then the Speaker of the House Republican Paul Ryan becomes President. The Senate President Pro Tempore, Republican Orrin Hatch is next, followed by the Cabinet Secretaries, all appointed by Trump, in order of the creation of their department. There is no legal or constitutional means by which Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders gets to be president, even if both Trump and Pence are removed. At present every single person in the line of succession is a Republican, and presumably part of the Fascist regime. This will only change if the Democrats gain a majority in either House of Congress in the 2018 midterms.

Given that even impeaching Trump and Pence would only result in other members of the Fascist regime becoming president, there is no legal, constitutional way to remove the Fascist regime. How, precisely do they plan to go about it non-violently, and how are we supposed to select a new president, given that the constitution will have been discarded? Is it the plan to force a democratically elected president and his cabinet from power and replace him with a leader chosen by a mob?

Ironic is a word that is overused but there is something ironic going on here, since these people don’t seem to have studied history at all. Overthrowing an elected government by the threat of mob violence is precisely what Benito Mussolini did with his March on Rome in 1922 and Adolf Hitler tried to tried to do with his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. When you consider the very real possibility of violence breaking out at some of these anti-Fascist protests, based on the past history of violence by the Antifa, it might seem that the real Fascists are the ones protesting Fascism.

There is the irony. Refuse Fascism will not be able to force Donald Trump from the Presidency, but if they manage to create an atmosphere of disorder and chaos by continuous, daily, possibly violent, demonstrations they will succeed in creating the atmosphere that a real dictator can take over. Again, if they had actually bothered to study history, they would know that Fascist dictators like Mussolini and Hitler were preceded by chaotic, lawless conditions in their respective countries. If regular, constitutional government cannot maintain the order people need to live their lives, they will turn to the strongman who can.

If the people planning to protest this Saturday really wanted to fight Fascism, they would protest Trump’s policies while acknowledging that he is the legitimate President and not a dictator. They would be putting their efforts into recruiting candidates for office in the upcoming elections and seeing to it that he is a one-term president. But, that would take knowledge and maturity, two characteristics not often associated with the Left. It’s easier just to have a giant temper tantrum.

 


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