Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Story of Hanukkah

December 24, 2016

Hanukkah begins at sunset today, so I thought I would write a little about this holiday. Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights. It is an eight day celebration 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 Hanukkah are celebrated December 24-Jamuary 1.

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.

The Nativity According to Mark

December 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

(Mark 1:1-8)

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

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

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

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

(Mark 1:9-15)

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ

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

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

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

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

The Nativity According to Matthew

December 21, 2016
The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1305) by Giot...

The Adoration of the Magi

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The word Magi usually refers to Zoroastrian priests. In Greco-Roman usage the term Magi had connotations of magicians or sorcerers, exotic figures from distant lands. It is not clear just who the Magi in the Gospel 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 Kepler discovered that there was indeed such a conjunction in the year 7 BC. The following year there was another conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This might have been very impressive to the Magi. It may also be that the Star was a supernatural phenomenon and one that cannot be studied today. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas.

 

 

 

The Nativity According to Luke

December 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Presumably Paul registered at Tarsus while he lived there. To get back to the census; obviously Joseph wasn’t a Roman citizen and Judea was under the rule of Herod, not the Romans. The census could have been a small time affair, the mention of Caesar Augustus being either an exaggeration or a long-standing policy of Augustus to encourage the provinces to conduct censuses, but conducted according to Roman norms, with every resident registering in his home town. You must not imagine, however, large crowds of people traveling to and fro. Remember that in this time most people would have lived their whole lives in the same village. Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been very much an exception. The only thing really odd about this account was his taking Mary with him. There would have been no need for her to travel. As a woman, her residency would not have mattered much.

 

Piltdown Man

December 19, 2016

The intellectual process of developing theories and hypotheses based on observations and experiments and checking those hypotheses with further experiments and observations that we refer to as science has proven itself to be the best tool human beings have ever developed for understanding and making use of the world around us. This process is not an easy one, however.  Not only is it a lot of work to conduct the necessary experiments and interpret the results, but the process demands a  rigorous honesty that does not come easily to anyone. Most people are less interested in discovering the truth than in being proven right, and there is always a tendency to consider only the evidence that confirms existing ideas and ignore the evidence against them. As Dr. Richard Feynmann put it in his lecture about cargo cult science:

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it.  If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.  There is also a more subtle problem.  When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

The problem is that this level of integrity is almost contrary to human nature. There is a great temptation to cheat, particularly when the rewards of fame and fortune are present.

One of the most famous instances of scientific cheating is Piltdown Man. Piltdown Man was a hypothetical “missing link” between human and ape discovered by an amatuer paleontologist Charles Dawson at the Piltdown gravel quarry in 1912. Dawson stated that workmen at the quarry had discovered skull fragments which they had given to him. Dawson had been able to reconstruct the skull with these fragments and other pieces that he had found at Piltdown. The resulting skull had a roughly human cranium, although only two thirds the size of a modern human brain, but an ape-like jaw with large canines. Clearly this was the remains of a creature caught midway in the transition between human and ape, the missing link of the chain of evolution.

Charles Dawson

Charles Dawson

At first, there was some skepticism about Dawson’s find. The canines seemed too large for the jaw and the whole thing seemed to be just a little too neat a combination of human and ape. Then, Dawson found another skull about two miles away. It might be possible for a human skull and ape jaw to have somehow been put together once and fossilized . Surely that couldn’t happen twice. Piltdown Man was accepted as a legitimate ancestor to homo sapiens.

 

Piltdown Man

Piltdown Man

 

At the time of Piltdown Man’s discovery, relatively little was known about the details of how humans evolved from their apelike ancestors. Over the years, more early human fossils were discovered and much more was learned about how humans became human. As the missing pieces were fitted together, it became increasingly obvious that Piltdown Man didn’t fit in. Paleontologists began to suspect that Piltdown Man was either an aberration, perhaps a mutation of some sort, of a hoax. In 1953, the question was definitely settled. Piltdown was shown to be a hoax. Piltdown Man was actually a rather crude forgery. The skull was that of a medieval man with a small head. The jaw was from an orangutan and the canines were the teeth of a chimpanzee.

The only remaining question was whether Charles Dawson was the forger or whether he was merely an innocent dupe. Dawson was the obvious suspect, but there were others associated with the discovery of Piltdown Man, who might have been able to perpetrate such a hoax, notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, and the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Recent research, however, has indicated that Charles Dawson was indeed the forger. He actually had something of a history of perpetrating such hoaxes and was well known for his skill at making unexpected archaeological finds, invariably later discovered to be forgeries.

Why did it take so long to expose Piltdown Man? The forgery was not very sophisticated and the discoverer had a reputation for not being particularly honest. To be fair, a space of forty years between the discovery and the exposure is not an unreasonable amount of time considering how much was discovered about human development in that time. Still, one might have expected more skepticism to be shown, especially considering how important the find seemed to be at the time. It seems as if everyone involved in the research involving Piltdown Man showed a disregard for the sort of scientific integrity that Dr. Feynman was talking about. For years no one seemed to want to consider the increasing evidence that Piltdown Man wasn’t real.

I think that was the problem. Piltdown Man was exactly what most paleontologists were expecting. At the time of his discovery, the general consensus was that human beings developed large brains first, while retaining a more apelike physiology such as a large jaw and lack of bipedalism. Only later, they believed did humans began to walk erect and to develop a flatter, more human face. It was also generally believed that human beings developed somewhere in Eurasia, Perhaps even in Germany, where Neanderthal Man had been discovered not long before, or in England. There was a certain amount of nationalistic pride in being the area where humanity began. It is not that surprising, then, that British paleontologists were the least likely to be skeptical about Piltdown Man.

In any event, these assumptions that Piltdown Man seemed to confirm have proven to be wrong. Primitive humans, such as the Australopithecus (Lucy)  began to walk erect on two feet long before developing larger brains, and the human race arose in Africa, almost the opposite of what was generally believed. I wonder how much these widely held but wrong assumptions held back the science of paleontology.

I also wonder how many other Piltdown Mans there are out there that are holding back the progress of science. I don’t mean hoaxes or forgeries necessarily, though that is a greater problem is science than many realized, but ideas and theories that are held to be settled science but aren’t. I wonder how much that everyone “knows” to be true and so not worth questioning, are not true, and how long it will take before anyone thinks to question it.

Thanksgiving

November 24, 2016

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.

The Election of 1856

November 20, 2016

The election of 1856,may have been one of the most important elections in American history. The country was beginning to tear itself apart over slavery and wise, tactful leadership was needed to avert a civil war. Unfortunately the political generation that had produced such legislative giants as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster had passed away the candidates of both major parties, the Democrats and the newly formed Republicans in their first presidential contest, were mediocrities.

The Compromise of 1850 had only delayed the inevitable clash between North and South over slavery. Although the immediate issue of whether the territories won from Mexico would be slave or free territories, the provision that the territories themselves would make the choice to permit slavery through popular sovereignty effectively repealed the Missouri compromise and made future conflicts over the expansion of slavery more likely.

The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and permitted popular sovereignty on the slavery question, pro and anti slavery settlers poured into Kansas and began fighting a miniature civil war, foreshadowing the greater war to come.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Democratic National Convention was held in Cincinnati on June 2. The delegates declined to nominate President Franklin Pierce for a second term. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act seemed to be a strong contender for the nomination, but he was passed over for James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. Buchanan was very well qualified to part the job of chief executive, at least in theory. He had been serving as American ambassador to Great Britain at the time he was nominated and had previously held the posts of Secretary of State under President Polk, U S Senator from Pennsylvania from 1834 to 1845; where he served as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, Ambassador to Russia under President Andrew Jackson from 1832-1833, and Congressman from Pennsylvania from 1821-1831. Buchanan had also served as a private in the Pennsylvania militia during the War of 1812. Despite his long career of service to his country, Buchanan was not particularly distinguished as a leader and the most likely reason he was nominated was because he had been out of the country during the controversies surrounding the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Bleeding Kansas. Buchanan was not known to have said anything about the issue of slavery that would upset the South and although he was a Northerner, he seemed sympathetic to the South and its peculiar institution.

For Buchanan’s running mate, the delegates selected John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who had been a Congressman from 1851-1855. Breckinridge would have preferred not to be nominated as Buchanan’s running mate, as he had supported Pierce and the two men did not get along, but he acquiesced. The Democrats went on to adopt a platform of popular sovereignty on the slavery question and support for the Ostend Manifesto which called for the acquisition of Cuba from Spain.

The Republicans met for their first national convention in Philadelphia of June 17. The Republican party  was formed from a coalition of former Whigs, Free-Soilers, and anti-slavery democrats to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act and was formally launched at a mass meeting at Jackson, Michigan back on July 6, 1854 and quickly began to win elections throughout the North that fall. The Republican Party was an explicitly anti-slavery party, but they didn’t call for the abolition of slavery where it existed, only for slavery not to expand into the western territories.

The Republicans chose the famous explorer and military hero John C. Fremont to be their presidential candidate. Fremont was known as “The Pathfinder” for his expeditions in the west and had captured California, during the Mexican War and had briefly served a contentious term as military governor there. After the was, Fremont had settled in California and served as one of the new state’s first Senators from 1850-1851. Fremont was not particularly well qualified to be president, but he did have a catchy slogan, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Men, Fremont”. The Republicans went on to pick former New Jersey Senator William L. Dayton as his running mate.

 

There were other parties who ran candidates in this election, the most notable being the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic American Party. The American Party was as much a secret society as a political party and because its members answered. “I know nothing when asked about its activities, the movement became known as the Know-Nothings. The American Party had managed to win a few elections, chiefly in New England. At their convention in Philadelphia in February 1856, the Know-Nothings nominated former president

 Millard Fillmore as their candidate, even though he had not been a follower of their movement and was, in fact, out of the country. They selected Andrew Jackson Donelson as their Vice-Presidential candidate.There were also the remnants of the Whig Party which met in Baltimore in September, They also nominated Millard Fillmore.

Along with the debate over slavery, there was the usual nineteenth century campaign hoopla, with parades, mass meetings, speeches, and political clubs. The Republicans did not run in the southern states, which were expected to vote for Buchanan and the Democrats,  so most of the campaigning was in the North and West. The Republicans opposed the extension of slavery into new territories and appealed to western farmers who did not want to have to compete with slave labor and eastern businessmen who supported high tariffs to protect American industry and fund internal improvements. Mainly of these businessmen supported the Democrats, however, fearing possible economic disruption if the Republicans won. The Democrats appealed to racism, calling their opponents “Black Republicans” and warned that the South would secede in the event of a Republican victory. They also claimed that Fremont was secretly a Catholic. Oddly, this did not help him get the Catholic vote, since the Catholics somehow believed that he was connected to the Know-Nothings.

In the end, the people of the North decided that they feared disunion and civil war more than they disliked slavery. Buchanan got 1,836,072 popular votes (45.3%) and 174 electoral votes, sweeping the entire South, California, and Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey in the North. Fremont did not do too badly considering that this was the Republicans’ first national election. He won 1,342,345 popular votes (33.1%) and 114 electoral votes, winning the rest of the North. The American Party also did surprisingly well with 873,053 popular votes (21.5%) and they won the state of Maryland with its 8 electoral votes. The fact that the results were divided upon sectional lines was more than a little ominous, as were the Southern threats to secede if the election wouldn’t go their way.

The Election of 1856

The Election of 1856

 

At his inauguration, President James Buchanan spoke of the nation’s bright future of economic progress and territorial expansion. About the slavery issue, he only said that he supported popular sovereignty in the territories and hoped that the upcoming decision by the Supreme Court on Dred Scott v. Sanford would settle the matter once and for all. Just two days later, the Supreme Court rendered its decision declaring that Congress had no power to regulate slavery in the territories, and all hell broke loose.

President Trump

November 13, 2016

I really didn’t expect Donald Trump to win this election. Actually, when he first won the nomination, I thought Trump had a fair chance of winning, particularly since Hilary Clinton is such an unattractive candidate. But, as the campaign progressed and the polls and Nate Silver‘s FiveThirtyEight consistently showed Clinton in the lead and after all the embarrassing things that Donald Trump had said in the past came out, I started to believe that he didn’t have a chance. To be sure, there were the Wikileaks revelations, but I counted on the media not to report on anything likely to harm Hilary Clinton’s chance of winning. It didn’t seem as if the increasing evidence of her corruption and contempt for the voters would make much of a difference.

I am glad to say that I was wrong. I am not a supporter of Donald Trump. I would have preferred that just about any of the other Republican contenders had won the nomination. I voted for Trump mostly because I did not believe that a person who has apparently broken federal laws safeguarding our national security should be rewarded by being given the highest office in the country.

Why were the polls and the experts wrong? Not all of them were. Scott Adams was predicting a Trump victory even before he secured the nomination. I think that Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity were Trump supporters all along and there were signs of discontent with the nomination of Hilary Clinton in traditionally strong Democratic states like Michigan and Wisconsin which went to Trump. Still, almost all the polls consistently showed Clinton in the lead. I suppose media bias played a role. There are ways of slanting polls to get the results you want and I don’t think any candidate was been so generally despised by the mainstream media as much as Donald Trump. The media has alway been biased in favor of the Democratic candidate, but this year they seemed to lose even the pretense of objectivity. This is understandable, since if a candidate is a racist monster, the second coming of Adolf Hitler, than any means, including deception, are permitted to stop him. There may have been more than a few people in the media willing to deliberately slant the polls or lie about the outcome, for a good cause. I wonder, though, if the pollsters who depend on a reputation for accuracy would go along. Perhaps this was more a case of wishful thinking and unwillingness to go against conventional wisdom than deliberate deception on the part of the media.

The people who were dishonest may have been the people who were planning to vote for Trump. There was a stigma attached to openly supporting Trump in some places. Supporters of Trump risked ostracism, loss of opportunities, and even violence against their property and persons. There might have been millions of Trump voters who kept quiet, lied to pollsters, and then voted for Trump in the privacy of the voting booth.

I hope that the Republicans learn the right lessons from Trump’s victory. Probably the only thing about Trump that I have found attractive is his willingness to fight. Too many Republicans, particularly presidential candidates are not. They try to curry the favor of the media, even though it is implacably hostile to them. Trump treated the reporters with the contempt they deserve. When they are attacked as racist, sexist, homophobic bigots, most Republicans back down and apologize, even when they have said nothing that could be construed as bigoted except in the minds of their opponents. Trump did not back down and apologize. He kept on attacking. Previous candidates were either too nice to fight back. like Mitt Romney and the Bushes, or used to media adulation for betraying their fellow Republicans, only to be shell-shocked when exposed to the full force of media bias when they run against a Democrat, like McCain. Trump is not nice. To be sure, his tendency to attack got him into trouble when he took things personally, but there ought to be a happy medium between being too aggressive and not aggressive at all. I hope that a less flawed and more disciplined Republican candidate will be able to find that medium.

I don’t think there is much 0f a mystery why Trump won. There are a lot of Americans who feel that they have been left behind and forgotten, that the leadership of both parties have been ignoring their needs and concerns. There are millions of Americans in so-called flyover country who believe, with good reason, that they live in a country whose leaders have rigged the economy to benefit themselves at the expense of ordinary Americans. Even worse, it is becoming increasingly obvious that these elites view ordinary Americans in fly-over country with contempt. Their religion and moral are mocked in the entertainment media. Their concerns are derided as bigotry. They have begun to feel as if their country has been taken away from them. These Americans may not have liked everything Donald Trump had to say, but the fact that the elites that despise them also hated Trump must have seemed to be a good reason to support Trump. He has the right sort of enemies. The way in which the anti-Trump protesters have been acting seems to vindicate their support.

I don’t know what kind of president Trump is likely to be. I don’t think that he is going to be the unmitigated disaster some are predicting. I doubt he is going to end up in anyone’s list of top ten best presidents. He couldn’t be worse than Barack Obama has been, or Hilary Clinton would have been. We’ll have to wait and see.

 

Colin Kaepernick

October 3, 2016

Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback for the San Francisco 49’s, has been making some waves lately with his refusal to stand for the National Anthem in protest over the treatment of Blacks in America, or something. As is often the case, there is a good deal of nonsense being written about this matter which needs to be dispensed with.

First, contrary to what some on the left are saying to confuse the issue, no one is disputing that Mr. Kaepernick has a right to refuse to stand when the National Anthem is played. He can stand, sit down, or turn somersaults if he wants to. I hope we can be spared any lectures on the first amendment by progressive hypocrites whose first instinct is to censor any ideas they don’t like.

Now, the NFL and the 49ers, as private corporations, do have the right to sanction Mr. Kaepernick if they believe his actions bring discredit or loss of revenue to them. He is working for them and can be expected to abide by their guidelines. They will not sanction Kaepernick, however. Political correctness has taken over even the world of sports and no athlete will be sanctioned for expressing an opinion so long as the opinion expressed is properly politically correct orthodoxy. A devout Christian who refused to stand for the national anthem on the grounds that he cannot support a nation that continences abortion or gay marriage is not likely to be met with the same bemused tolerance.

This leads to the other piece of nonsense that ought to be dispensed with, that Colin Kaepernick is being in any way courageous or brave. He must know perfectly well that nothing bad is likely to happen to him as a result of his demonstration. It is not at all controversial to regurgitate left wing talking points. If he really wanted to be brave and controversial, he might make a public statement that the wounds afflicting the African-American community these days is either of their own making or inflicted by people wanting to “help” them. If anything, his actions help him by drawing attention to him. I, and many others who are not football fans, would have never heard of him if not for his actions. Also, he has made himself immune from being dismissed from the team if  he underperforms. He can simply proclaim that he is being punished for his courageous stand and there is no shortage of fools who would believe him.

The question is not whether Colin Kaepernick has a right to sit during the national anthem, he does, but whether he is right to do so. His stated reasons for sitting are:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,  “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Are blacks and people of color being oppressed and murdered in this country? Should he refuse to show pride in his country. It seems more than a little grotesque for a man who is being paid millions of dollars to complain about being oppressed. Granted, he is not saying that he is personally being oppressed but is unselfishly protesting the oppression of all the other people of color, but it is still odd that he has not considered that a country willing to pay him so much money for playing a game may not be the oppressive dystopia he seems to believe it is. There are, indeed, tragic occasions in which police officers make the wrong decision and shoot suspects, but does he really believe that there are any police officers who start their shifts intending to gun down innocent Blacks? Does it not occur to him that a police officer might be unpunished for shooting a person simply because the shooting happened to be justified, that the officer had good reason to fear for his life?

That is really the point. No one denies that Blacks and people of color were treated very badly in the past in this country. There is, no doubt, still some discrimination against people. What Colin Kaepernick and others do not seem to understand is that oppression, prejudice and discrimination are what’s normal throughout human history. What is not normal is for a privileged group to willingly give up its privileges and to attempt to redress past wrongs, yet that is what has been happening in the United States for the past half century. Mr. Kaepernick’s vision of country that oppresses people of color does not match the reality of a government that has made it a priority to end discrimination and a media that denounces racism and prejudice at every opportunity.

The truth is that neither Colin Kaepernick, or any other American in the twenty-first century can justly claim to be persecuted and oppressed, whatever their color, race or circumstances, not by the standards that have prevailed in most times and places. There has been a lot of talk, lately, about white privilege and the one percent. Perhaps it would be better to talk about American privilege. If you have the good fortune to be born in America, then you are one of the most privileged persons to have ever walked the Earth. You have freedoms and opportunities few have ever had. You don’t have to be afraid of going to jail for saying the wrong thing or practicing the wrong religion. Your career opportunities are not limited by by your social class or birth. You can rise to the top, however humble your origins, if you have enough talent, ambition and are willing to work hard. Naturally, not everyone has the same opportunities and some have advantages others do not. That is inevitable. We cannot make everyone begin on a precisely level playing field. Despite that, and despite the real history of racial discrimination in this country, the United States of America is probably the best place in the world to be Black, or White or Yellow, or whatever. America is a country worth being proud of, despite its faults.

It is too bad that ingrates like Colin Kaepernick cannot see past the faults and recognise what a great country they live in.

 

All About Mormons

September 13, 2016

The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have a curious relationship towards religion. They are not religious and enjoy mocking religion in their show, yet they deny being atheists and have been just as quick to make fun of the pretensions of Atheism and the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, and they have admitted to having  a certain curiosity and respect for religious belief. In fact, a closer look at the South Park episodes which ridicule religion shows that they are really opposed to hypocrisy or bad actions justified by religious belief.

Parker and Stone have a particular liking for Mormonism. Growing up in Colorado, right next to the Mormon promised land of Utah, they knew many Mormons and have expressed an appreciation for their politeness and niceness, even while regarding the story of Joseph Smith and Mormon beliefs as ridiculous. Their feelings about Mormonism and religion in general are expressed in the seventh season episode, “All About Mormons“.

In this episode, a Mormon family, the Harrisons, moves to South Park and one of the boys, named Gary, is in the same class as the series regulars.  The Harrisons are nice and polite and eager to befriend everyone in South Park, particularly the Marshes and while they do not want to force their religious beliefs on anyone, they are more than willing to tell their neighbors the history and beliefs of the Mormon religion and it’s prophet Joseph Smith.

The Harrisons

The Harrisons

This history is told through a series of musical flashbacks.

Stan is not impressed with their account of Joseph Smith and points out the inconsistencies and logical fallacies that suggest that Joseph Smith was simply making up his stories about the golden plates and the Angel Moroni.

"All you've got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat and then couldn't do it again when the translations were hidden!"

“All you’ve got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat and then couldn’t do it again when the translations were hidden!”

The next day Gary confronts Stan at the bus stop and explains why he is a Mormon even if the stories are a little silly.

Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.

The sentiment expressed by Gary, and presumably shared by Parker and Stone is one that I would hope if widely adopted, might promote greater tolerance and civility between persons of different faiths, and with those with no faith. Still, it doesn’t satisfy me because it ignores the question that is most important to me. It is good if the religion you follow makes you a better person, but the question I think more important is, is the religion true? Can the assertions and claims made by this particular religion be shown to be true or false?

I do not mean the metaphysical claims made by nearly all religions concerning deities or the afterlife or anything of that sort. These matters cannot be shown to be true or false this side of eternity and properly matters of faith Nor do I expect that every word of the Book of Mormon or spoken by Joseph Smith to be literally and completely true. That is a burden that even my own mainstream Christianity couldn’t bear. I do think it is fair to ask whether, in a broad sense, the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith are what they claim to be. Is the Book of Mormon really a historical record of Jewish refugees who settled in the New World? Is Joseph Smith really a prophet of the Lord who translated this account?

The answer to both questions would seem to be no. Studies of the DNA of the Native Americans show that their ancestry is almost entirely from Northern Asia or Siberia. There is no indication of any ancestors of Semitic or Middle Eastern origin. There is no archeological evidence that any of the events described in the Book of Mormon ever took place Not a single city or country named in the Book of Mormon has ever been positively located or identified, nor do any individuals named in the Book of Mormon appear in any historical record outside the Book of Mormon. In contrast, many places in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, can be located on a map and many people named in the Bible can be attested in other sources. It may well be that some of the accounts in the Bible are slanted, or even fictitious, but there is no question that there really were places like Israel, Judah, Jerusalem, or Babylon and that people like the kings and prophets of Israel, Jesus and his apostles really did exist.

As for Joseph Smith, he had something of a reputation as a con artist who practiced folk magic, specializing in money digging, or searching for lost treasure by occult means. It is possible that Smith reformed after the visions he claimed to have had, but Smith’s actions even after he founded the Mormon religion do not seem to be those of an honest man, still less a prophet.

Does it matter it there is any truth to the Book of Mormon or the story of Joseph Smith, so long as it improves people’s lives? Perhaps not, but it seems to me that a faith built on untruths is a faith built on sand rather than solid rock. I do not believe that such a faith can endure.

For my part, if it were shown that the claims of Christianity were false, I would be obliged to change religions. I could not take comfort in the idea that it does not matter whether the stories the gospels tell about Jesus are true so long as I follow the teachings in the gospels because Christianity is not based on the teachings of Jesus, or Paul, or anyone else. Buddhism could still exist even if it were shown that there was no such person as Gautama because his teachings about life and suffering stand on their own regardless whether he existed or not. The same could be true of Confucius or Socrates or many other sages. The teachings of Christ are not much different from the teachings of other sages and express the same truths common to the whole human race. The central message of Christianity is a historical one, that the man Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form who was crucified for our sins, who died and was resurrected, defeating sin and death. If Jesus were shown to have never existed or were shown to have been just an ordinary man, than I, and every other Christian, have been wasting our time. As Paul put it,

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1Cor 15:12-19)

Is this true of Mormonism? I don’t know. The family values taught by the contemporary Mormon faith certainly have little to do with the polygamous Joseph Smith. It may be that the faith is better than its founder. And yet, the family values that Mormonism teaches are, or used to be, the mainstream within the Judeo-Christian tradition. If one can have the family values without the silly stories about Joseph Smith, why bother with the silly stories? If the Mormon religion gives life meaning but is shown to be based on falsehoods, than then meaning one derives from the faith is also based upon falsehoods. I think I would rather have a faith based on truth.


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