Religion Today

Friday, August 05, 2016

King Herod: President of the Olympic Games

With the Olympic Games about to open, we can look forward to enjoying athletic competitions among the best of the world’s athletes. And in between the contests, we will hear about how much more expensive these games are than any before them and learn about different sponsors -- companies, taxpayers and governments -- who have contributed money to pay the cost. Indeed, sometimes it seems that the Olympics limps from games to games, trying to determine how to pay the bills. 
This is nothing new; more than 2,000 years ago, the Olympics were having the same problem. It was getting harder and harder to pay the bills, and the games were in decline. But then a financial savior appeared, in the unlikely form of Herod the Great, King of Judea.
The year was 14 B.C., and the citizens of Olympia, the city and religious shrine in Greece where the Olympic Games were held, were worrying about paying for the next games. Hosting the gathering every four years was taking a toll on the city’s finances, for not only did they have to cover the housing and feeding of many people, athletes and spectators, but they also had to pay for the sacrifices offered at that time. Olympia served as the central Greek shrine to the god Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. 
The Olympic Games were held as a celebration in Zeus’s honor. Indeed, the first and last of the five days set aside for the games were devoted to offering animal sacrifices to Zeus and his consort, the goddess Hera. In recent years, the Olympics’ leaders noted, the money had been getting tighter, and the lavish character of the games had been becoming noticeably more shoddy and worn.
King Herod of Judea heard about these troubles and decided to do something about it. Herod, at that time, was looking for a project in which to get involved. The previous year, he had finished rebuilding the central area of the temple in Jerusalem, which had taken him 15 years. It was so magnificent that six centuries later, the rabbis still said that anyone who had not seen Herod’s temple had never seen true beauty. Herod also was finishing up his other building project, Caesarea Maritima, a new city built from the ground up. With the largest harbor on the eastern Mediterranean Sea, it was designed to encourage trade and travel. 
So, needing a new project on which to lavish his money, Herod decided to pay for the Olympic Games of 12 B.C. He journeyed to Olympia for the games that summer and presided over them as president. Of course, Herod’s gift ensured that the games would go on in style. But, by granting Herod the role of presiding president, the Olympians placed Herod in a position where everyone, especially the elite, the wealthy and the rulers, would meet Herod and thank him for his benefaction. 
Indeed, even Caesar Augustus probably thanked Herod for honoring Zeus, Caesar’s patron god, when Herod visited Rome later that summer. Since the ancient Olympic Games were not a secular event as they are today, but a religious celebration devoted to Zeus, a good part of the money Herod the Jew donated must have gone to pay for the sacrifices to Zeus. Herod must have thus practiced the saying of the later Christian apostle Paul: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Apparently, Herod enjoyed his Olympics so much that he gave additional funds afterward to endow the festival in future years. For this further gift, the ancient historian Josephus records Herod had his name recorded as perpetual president of the Olympic Games.

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What are the Benefits of Being Saved?

From its beginnings some 2000 years ago, Christianity has claimed that it provides something for its believers not available in any other religion. That something is salvation, a new condition for believers that has been defined in a wide variety of ways across the centuries and the continents where Christianity has grown. Usually, salvation involves a resurrection after one’s death into an eternal, heavenly existence, but how one attains salvation and the other benefits it includes has been defined in many different ways.
            In American evangelical Christianity, achieving salvation is called “getting saved,” often referred to as being “born again” through a spiritual awakening likened to a second birth. Becoming saved can be long process that takes place over months, even years, or it can be a sharp, sudden experience that happens in an instant. In either case, the conversion comprises a life-changing experience in which the convert’s new character differs significantly from the old, at least in their own mind.
            It is common to say that being saved “transforms your life,” but what does that mean specifically? On the one hand, it is clear that salvation changes “you,” the individual who becomes saved. On the other hand, it is also clear that it does not alter “life” in any significant way. Life is a series of joys and tribulations, of enjoyment and boredom, of heath and sickness. Those events continue in their unpredictable way and salvation does nothing to alter it.
            Salvation’s effects center on the individual. First, there is a spiritual transformation within oneself, described in a variety of ways: a feeling of peace, inner security, or gaining a new spiritual perspective. This inner peace may improve a person’s confidence, give them an ability to persevere in a difficult task or circumstance, or enable them to shed damaging behaviors such as substance abuse.
            Second, one develops a new relationship with God. Since God is “saving” an individual, prayer to God takes on a new meaning. Some boldly claim to “talk to God,” others humbly say they feel someone is listening. For some, the relationship carries an emotional component (they “feel” their contact with God), but others claim such experiences only rarely, if at all.
            Third, saved individuals often join a church. This provides a social benefit, a welcoming community whose members include the saved individual in their activities, become concerned with the individual, and provide a social arena for them to express their talents.
             In contrast to an individual’s personal transformation, life’s travails continue as they will. Christian believers are plagued by illness and accidents just like non-Christians. Although occasional announcements of a miraculous healing occur, especially in the Christian press, these are news because of their rarity value. They are not everyday occurrences.
            Mental illness, depression and suicide plague believers as well just like non-believers. The former head of the Texas Baptist Convention, Phil Lineberger, took his life after battling depression for years. The well-known Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church had a son stricken with mental illness from his youth who finally shot himself at age 27.
            Even though churches provide social support for marriage, being a Christian does not ensure that one will avoid adultery or divorce. Billy Graham’s grandson Tullian Tchividjian resigned his pastorship at a Florida megachurch after both he and his wife admitted to affairs, even though they had been married some 20 years. Divorce followed. Sexual abuse can happen within evangelical churches and religious organizations, just as they do in Catholic and other churches.
            And salvation does not prevent the sudden calamities of life. Christians are just a likely to die, be injured or lose their property in auto wrecks, armed robberies, shootings, earthquakes, and tornadoes.

            The point is not that Christians are particularly bad off or that being saved makes one vulnerable. Rather, salvation does not alter the random events of life, whether positive or negative. Believing in Jesus is not magical; the “living Christ,” as he is often termed, does not miraculously protect his followers from bad things happening to them. Salvation affects the saved individual and perhaps makes them more prepared to deal with such events, but it does not change the events themselves.

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Friday, July 08, 2016

On the Muslim Call to Prayer: A Visitor’s Musings

When I arrived at the Albright research institute in Muslim East Jerusalem this past January, I quickly discovered there would be a new pattern to my life. At 5 the next morning, at the crack of dawn, I was awakened by the singing of several loud male voices. It went on and on and did not stop. A pillow over the head did not help, so I finally got up and shuffled off to find some coffee.
Although this was not my first experience hearing the Muslim Call to Prayer, it was my first close-range and extended experience with it. Over the ensuing weeks, I discovered it shaped the rhythm of my day. Five times a day, at intervals of roughly three-four hours, the singing would begin. At dawn, I found it woke me and shook the sleep from my eyes. Up I got. Breakfast took place about the time of the second Call to Prayer, 8ish.
The third call took place between 12:30 and 1 p.m. For me, it signaled the moment when my lunch options had just been reduced. Abu Hassan’s falafel store, which made the best local hummus, stopped selling and shut down so its workers could go pray. The bread stand on the corner selling fresh kak (a Palestinian bread that looks like an elongated bagel with lots of sesame seeds) also would close for the same reason. Thank goodness the young men running the shwarma shop were secular and so kept serving without a blip.
The fourth call happened about tea time in the afternoon, about 4ish. Even though the research institute hosting me was American, it had adopted the British notion of tea in the afternoon. The evening prayers received their signal not long after dinner, before 8 p.m., when we were sitting outside in the courtyard relaxing after the day’s heat.
The loud volume of the singing of the muezzin (the Arabic word for the man who sings the Call to Prayer) came from its amplification. After some time, I realized that despite the amplification, the singers sounded pretty good; the sound quality was high, they had good voices, and the tunes (plural!) were melodious. When I heard singers “testing” the microphone a few times, I realized the singing was done live.
The Albright Institute where I lived was equidistant from three mosques, so we heard them at an equal volume. The singers sang in the same key, and so when they all sang, they sang in harmony. This was rather stunning, since they did not hear each other; I only heard them that way because I was in the middle.
This phenomenon of muezzin harmony at the Call to Prayer is a new phenomenon, I think. This is the first time since I first started traveling to the Middle East 30 years ago that the Call to Prayer has sounded musical. Not that past singing was bad, but that the amplification systems were not high quality -- more suited to a train station than to music. And to make matters worse, they all played a canned recording singing the same tune. Over and over and over.
To be sure, in the centuries before amplification and recording, there would have been live singing of the Call to Prayer. But then the singers’ voices would not have reached as far and as loudly, so it would have been less common for multiple singers to have been heard at the same time.
I got a new perspective in March when I took a trip to the Kingdom of Jordan. One night we camped in the desert, near a place the Jordanians call the “Lowest Place on Earth.” (Since it was more than 1200 feet below sea level, that could be true.)
Given my early rising habits, I woke up early. It was quiet. Still. No mosques; no singing. Just stillness. The desert with its empty sand held almost no sound; it would make a Wyoming mountain forest sound like a traffic jam on a city turnpike. Then, as the sky began to lighten, a cock crowed. One, then two, then three. And more. One for each Bedouin tent camped in the draws scattered around us. Their harsh, grating cacophony sounded over and over. Then, a donkey began to bray, its hee-haw sounding like a fog horn gasping for air. The stillness broken, I longed for my harmonious muezzins.

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On the Muslim Call to Prayer: A Visitor’s Musings

When I arrived at the Albright research institute in Muslim East Jerusalem this past January, I quickly discovered there would be a new pattern to my life. At 5 the next morning, at the crack of dawn, I was awakened by the singing of several loud male voices. It went on and on and did not stop. A pillow over the head did not help, so I finally got up and shuffled off to find some coffee.
Although this was not my first experience hearing the Muslim Call to Prayer, it was my first close-range and extended experience with it. Over the ensuing weeks, I discovered it shaped the rhythm of my day. Five times a day, at intervals of roughly three-four hours, the singing would begin. At dawn, I found it woke me and shook the sleep from my eyes. Up I got. Breakfast took place about the time of the second Call to Prayer, 8ish.
The third call took place between 12:30 and 1 p.m. For me, it signaled the moment when my lunch options had just been reduced. Abu Hassan’s falafel store, which made the best local hummus, stopped selling and shut down so its workers could go pray. The bread stand on the corner selling fresh kak (a Palestinian bread that looks like an elongated bagel with lots of sesame seeds) also would close for the same reason. Thank goodness the young men running the shwarma shop were secular and so kept serving without a blip.
The fourth call happened about tea time in the afternoon, about 4ish. Even though the research institute hosting me was American, it had adopted the British notion of tea in the afternoon. The evening prayers received their signal not long after dinner, before 8 p.m., when we were sitting outside in the courtyard relaxing after the day’s heat.
The loud volume of the singing of the muezzin (the Arabic word for the man who sings the Call to Prayer) came from its amplification. After some time, I realized that despite the amplification, the singers sounded pretty good; the sound quality was high, they had good voices, and the tunes (plural!) were melodious. When I heard singers “testing” the microphone a few times, I realized the singing was done live.
The Albright Institute where I lived was equidistant from three mosques, so we heard them at an equal volume. The singers sang in the same key, and so when they all sang, they sang in harmony. This was rather stunning, since they did not hear each other; I only heard them that way because I was in the middle.
This phenomenon of muezzin harmony at the Call to Prayer is a new phenomenon, I think. This is the first time since I first started traveling to the Middle East 30 years ago that the Call to Prayer has sounded musical. Not that past singing was bad, but that the amplification systems were not high quality -- more suited to a train station than to music. And to make matters worse, they all played a canned recording singing the same tune. Over and over and over.
To be sure, in the centuries before amplification and recording, there would have been live singing of the Call to Prayer. But then the singers’ voices would not have reached as far and as loudly, so it would have been less common for multiple singers to have been heard at the same time.
I got a new perspective in March when I took a trip to the Kingdom of Jordan. One night we camped in the desert, near a place the Jordanians call the “Lowest Place on Earth.” (Since it was more than 3,000 feet below sea level, that could be true.)
Given my early rising habits, I woke up early. It was quiet. Still. No mosques; no singing. Just stillness. The desert with its empty sand held almost no sound; it would make a Wyoming mountain forest sound like a traffic jam on a city turnpike. Then, as the sky began to lighten, a cock crowed. One, then two, then three. And more. One for each Bedouin tent camped in the draws scattered around us. Their harsh, grating cacophony sounded over and over. Then, a donkey began to bray, its hee-haw sounding like a fog horn gasping for air. The stillness broken, I longed for my harmonious muezzins.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Handwriting on the Sherds

April 13, 2016 

A rather dry and technical scholarly article released Monday (April 11, 2016) about ancient handwriting generated breathless headlines this week. “Evidence on When the Bible Was Written,” wrote the New York Times. The opening sentence in The Washington Post’s article said, evidence suggests “that key biblical texts may have been composed earlier than what some scholars think.” “Bible Written Earlier Than Previously Believed?” asked The Christian Post.
The answer actually is no. The evidence belongs to a time period later than the time period other evidence has convinced most biblical scholars the biblical books of the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) and the Former Prophets (Joshua to 2 Kings) were composed. Indeed, these biblical books could have been written a century or more earlier than this supposedly “new” evidence suggests. So, what is going on?
The article appeared in the respected American academic publication Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In true scientific fashion, it lists nine co-authors. The leaders of the team are Israel Finkelstein and Eli Piasetzky from Tel Aviv University in Israel. Finkelstein is a well-known, widely respected yet controversial archaeologist. Always pushing the cutting edge of knowledge, he has made his reputation by asking difficult questions and then trying to answer them.
The question of this research is how widespread was literacy -- defined as the ability to write sentences containing instructions -- in ancient Judah. To give an initial answer, Finkelstein and his team looked at 16 ostraca, pieces of broken pottery that someone wrote upon. These were discovered several decades ago at Arad, a Judahite military fort in southern Judah and dated to the year 600 B.C.
The analysis was carried out by Piasetzky, a mathematician, and his team. They designed a computer algorithm for analyzing differences in handwriting that enabled them to determine when two documents were written by different authors. Applied to the 16 ostraca, they discovered that these texts, essentially requisitions for supplies, were composed by six different people.
The interesting result is that analysis of the content of these ostraca shows that some of the writers were low-level army officials, such as quartermasters and their assistants, rather than generals. The team concludes that this demonstrates that schools existed in ancient Judah, a conclusion for which there is a woeful lack of direct evidence. It also shows that access to education in these schools was widely available within the army.
The article’s odd claim is that these results show that certain books of the Bible, Deuteronomy and the books of the Former Prophets, were written earlier than scholars thought. The argument of Finkelstein and his team is that there is no comparable collection of inscriptions for the next 400 years. After these writings in 600 B.C., there is no large trove of inscriptions in Judea until 200 B.C. or so.
The argument is that these books must have been written by 600 because the handwriting analysis of these ostraca suggests widespread literacy by this time, and the lack of inscriptions prior to 200 B.C. indicates that they could not have been written after it.
That conclusion is great, and I am glad of the supporting evidence for early literacy. But, that is all it is -- supporting evidence.
Most of this was already known. In 2001, Ephraim Stern observed in his “Archaeology of the Land of the Bible” a study surveying what was known at the time: “One of the surprising results of the excavations of Judah in the 7th century BCE is the unusual amount of epigraphic material” (p. 169).
In other words, scholars have long known that in the century prior to 600, there was an explosion of writing in Judah. Along with inscriptions, there are graffiti, bureaucratic writings, letters, and weights and measures. And, don’t forget the thousands of bullae from Jerusalem and elsewhere. These lack writing, but constitute the impressions of seals that were used to seal up written letters for secure delivery.
This evidence matches how many historians understand the writing of these biblical works. The book of Deuteronomy, at least the law code found in chapters 12-26, was written or published in 622, during the reign of King Josiah. This was followed shortly thereafter by the composition of the Former Prophets, with only the last two chapters coming later. The latter dealt with Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians in 586 and events in the later exile.
So, rather than pushing back the earliest date of when biblical books were composed, the study by Finkelstein, Piasetzky and their team only help to firm up the tail of the dates in the already existing historical reconstruction.
Works consulted: Ephraim Stern, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, vol. 2 New York: Doubleday, 2001. William Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book Cambridge: Cambridge, 2004.

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Good Friday in Jerusalem: Scenes from Three Religions

March 30, 2016 

Scene 1: The crowd begins to gather at the Lions’ Gate on the east side of Jerusalem's Old City. Outside of Sultan Suleiman's 16th century walls, people converse in many languages: Russian, Slovak, Italian, French, Arabic and English.
At the appointed time of 11:30 a.m., Catholic priests lead the crowd into the Old City and onto the Via Dolorosa -- the route that Jesus supposedly took from Pilate’s palace to his crucifixion on Golgotha. As the worshippers move through the narrow street, they sweep everyone before them. No one even attempts the opposite direction.
Scene 2: Shops line the Via Dolorosa. This lucrative route is designed for Christian pilgrims, whether they’re visiting on a holy day or not. They sell frankincense, myrrh, icons and rosaries, as well as antique religious items, woven rugs and jewelry. On most days, shopkeepers come out of their stores to entice passersby to enter. Today, walking the street an hour after the crowd has gone by, most shopkeepers do not appear. They have already had excellent sales!  
Scene 3: At each of the 13 stations of the cross, the crowd stops, and the priests conduct a short worship service. All movement on the street stops. No one can go anywhere. Everyone becomes a participant, whether that was their intent or not.
If you get claustrophobic in crowds and try to leave, you will discover that you are in a highly secure zone. The police have blocked off all streets connecting to the Via Dolorosa; no one can walk down them in either direction. The only way out is the way in.  
Scene 4: As the pilgrims enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the street clears, a muezzin sounds the call for the Muslim Friday midday prayers. From all around, Muslim men appear, moving quickly eastward down the Via Dolorosa to the El-Aqsa mosque. After all, Friday is the Muslim holy day, and the other end of the street leads directly to this most sacred area.
Scene 5: An hour later, I sit in Jafar's Sweet Shop eating a plate of hot kanafi. Everyone knows, that in Jerusalem, Jafar’s is the best place for this cheese-based dessert with the crumbly red topping.
A middle-aged woman in a head scarf and a plain black kafia enters with her two 20-something sons. They walk over to the counter with the large round trays of hot sweets, debating what to have for their Friday desserts. They point, then a few deft slices cut by the salesman followed by some quick packaging, and they leave.  
An old man with grizzled hair sticking out from under a white skull cap waits at the sales register as they bag his purchase. His smile beams, encompassing the entire room, but his boyishly innocent eyes focus on one thing -- the bag of sweets being handed to him across the counter. He departs with his head erect and the smile still playing across his lips.
Scene 6: Outside the Old City, the flower store on Salah ed-Din Street is busy. A Mercedes is pulled up onto the sidewalk, a large spray of white flowers attached to its hood. Soon, it will be driven down the street to the bridal store, where the bride will walk down its broad steps, through the gate and into the car to be whisked off to her wedding.
Scene 7: In Judaism, this Friday is Purim, the topsy-turvy holiday, which last night highlighted readings of the biblical story of Esther, and today features crowds of children dressed in costumes. In West Jerusalem, a party atmosphere reigns -- as in a children’s birthday party. There are street musicians, clowns tying balloon animals, face painting and general joyous fun.
Scene 8: At Mary’s Tomb near the Garden of Gethsemane, a multitude of shoes nearly block the entrance. In Islam, Mary is the mother of one of their greatest prophets, namely Jesus. So, on this special day, a group of Muslim pilgrims visit her tomb, removing their shoes before entering, as they would at a mosque.
Scene 9: Today’s wanderings took me between West Jerusalem, East Jerusalem and the Old City. At the day’s end, I discover I traveled between two time zones. Daylight savings began Thursday night in West Jerusalem, but not in the other two areas. I saw the Purim parade at 10 a.m., and then Mary’s tomb at 9:30 that morning. Does anyone really know what time it is? What century?

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Proverbs and Creation


If someone were to ask us what the Bible says about creation, most of us would give one of two answers.
We might talk about Genesis 1 and mention how God created the world in seven days, beginning with nothing and gradually making the Earth, its creatures and plants, and, finally, humans. Or, we might refer to the story of Adam and Eve, where this newly created couple is placed in bliss into the Garden of Eden where they sin by eating the forbidden fruit. But, there is a third biblical description of creation that few of us remember: a story where God begins by creating a woman and then, with her help, goes on to make the rest of the cosmos.
What is this story, and where is it found? This picture of creation comes from the book of Proverbs. Most of the book contains pithy sayings, short but meaningful, such as: “If a man returns evil for good, evil will not depart from his house” (Proverbs 17:13). Or, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses” (Proverbs 10:12). Most of Proverbs’ 31 chapters consist of a list of such sayings. Some are organized by subject, but most seem to be just randomly placed one next to another. Despite the wisdom and thoughtfulness of individual proverbs, as a whole, the book is not exciting reading.
The main point of Proverbs is that people should become wise, they should pursue wisdom through study, and they should act and behave in a wise manner at all times. In the first nine chapters, this goal and its alternative of foolishness is personified by two women, Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly. Dame Folly acts like a prostitute to entice young men to her, while Lady Wisdom is presented as a pure and chaste wife to stand by one’s side and support one on the journey through life. 
But, suddenly, in Proverbs chapter 8, this opposition is dropped, and the story line opposing Wisdom and Folly is forgotten. Instead, Wisdom turns to the reader and speaks in first person. She begins by speaking of the importance and desirability of wisdom. “I, Wisdom, dwell in prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion … I have counsel and sound wisdom, I have insight, I have strength. By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just” (Proverbs 8:12, 14).
But, then, Lady Wisdom changes the subject to creation and her place in it: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth” (Proverbs 8:22-24). According to this passage, Wisdom was God’s first creation. If we were to fit this into the creation story of Genesis 1, this act would go prior to the opening verse; it goes before “The Beginning.”
But, Lady Wisdom is not just any created thing; she was God’s helper at creation. It is not just that “When he established the Heavens, I was there” (Proverbs 8:27). Instead, she was God’s assistant, “when he established the foundations of the deep … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman” (Proverbs 8:28-30).  And, then, as if this was not enough, Wisdom helps God enjoy the results of his work. “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men” (Proverbs 8:31). 
Christians and Jews have understood Lady Wisdom in many different ways over the centuries. Their interpretations have ranged from literal to mystical, from analogies to symbols. But, it seems to me that the most important message here is to understand creation through Wisdom, rather than through fear and folly.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Thanksgiving at Plymouth: The Christmas Substitute (or, You Can’t Stop a Good Party)

November 11, 2015 
The celebration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in late November was not enacted until the 1870s. The official reason was to commemorate the landing at Plymouth of the nation’s Puritan forefathers and foremothers. The holiday’s national designation stemmed from two forces. The first was the unceasing will of author Sarah Josepha Hale, who spent 40 years of her adult life campaigning for the declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
The second was the Civil War and its aftermath. Thanksgiving celebrates the American nation and the country’s citizens’ unity within it and subordination to it. So, it is not surprising that Abraham Lincoln issued the first national proclamation for its observance and that his successors, encouraged by Hale, instituted the national date of a Thursday in late November.
Before the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, states held their own observances on a variety of dates under different names. As the location of the Pilgrims’ landing, Massachusetts commemorated the first arrival of the Puritans on the Mayflower at the site of Plymouth Rock, which they identified as Dec. 22.
In the town of Plymouth itself, public celebrations began to take place in 1798, and accounts of celebrations over the next 25 years appear in the Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. 17. 
Plymouth’s observances contained three main parts: a religious ceremony that included a procession around the town and a sermon or “oration”; a large dinner followed by the drinking of numerous toasts to leaders past and present; and a festive ball filled with dancing and merriment. This last item is usually accompanied by thanks to the town’s women for organizing such an enjoyable evening.
Toasts feature prominently in the local news reports, which often list them. The dinner of 1798 features 29 separate toasts. Unsurprisingly, later reports reveal worries about public drunkenness.
Plymouth’s annual observance of the “Pilgrim Anniversary” took place just three days before the traditional date of Christmas, Dec. 25. True to their Puritan heritage, most people in Massachusetts during the 18th and early 19th centuries did not celebrate Christmas.
On Dec. 25, shops were open for their normal hours, children attended school, and daily life continued as normal. Merrymakers were often prosecuted for disturbing the peace. Massachusetts continued this treatment of Christmas until well after the Civil War.
Puritans disliked Christmas intensely. It was not a biblically ordained celebration. Nowhere in Scripture appears any encouragement for a celebration of Jesus’ birth. When the Reformation took place, many Protestants saw Christmas (and Easter) as part of Catholicism’s “pagan corruption” of Christianity and removed them. American Puritans held to this view long after most other Protestants abandoned it.
Perhaps more importantly, Puritans disapproved of the rowdiness, drunkenness and inappropriate actions that accompanied Christmas celebrations of the time. They believed the celebration of the Savior’s birth, who was God’s Son, should not be a time for encouraging irreligious behavior.
From the 1880s onward, despite changing attitudes in Massachusetts, American Christmas stories and poems decry and ridicule this dour Puritan denial of Christmas and its celebratory joy and festivities.
The stories usually imply and even state outright that the rejection of joyous activity on Christmas day is typical of daily life in New England: No one ever smiles; children are quiet and subdued; there is no pleasure in living; happiness is never expressed.
Such tales overlook the festivities of the Pilgrim festivals just three days before. Celebrating the foundation of America as a nation, these revelries were secular (despite occasional religious overtones). So drunkenness, and loud and exciting activities like dancing, did not offend religious sensibilities, because they did not take place on a religious holiday.
The people of Plymouth did not shun merriment; they didn’t even shun it in late December. They simply avoided associating it with a day that their Puritan heritage linked to “pagan worship.” In many ways, they exemplify what happened in Boston and other Massachusetts towns and cities. And, it should be noted, they engaged in the much despised activities that caused their Puritan forefathers to reject Christmas.
Plymouth’s early celebrations of what later became Thanksgiving, then, gave them a day of celebration that they could enjoy at the same time the rest of the country was celebrating Christmas. Their secular observance of the nation’s founding provided a substitute for Christmas religious festivities.

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Commanding Morality

October 28, 2015
It is a tenet of Christian belief that the moral values that God commanded are “good.” By this I do not mean to say that they are a “good job” or that they were “done well” or that God should receive a gold star for creating them.
No, I mean that, according to Christian belief, God’s ethics represent the highest form of the virtue "goodness" possible. They are the epitome of moral values; it is impossible for a better moral system to exist.
Of course, in the modern world we disagree with specific moral rules and no longer practice some of them, such as the rules about slavery and divorce. Indeed, fewer than half of the Ten Commandments are encoded in United States law. But, as a theological claim, if God is good, then the moral rules He proclaimed must be good. And, since God is by definition perfect, then the morality He proclaimed also must be perfectly good.
From this viewpoint, it is interesting to ask this question: Is God’s morality good because He commanded it, or did He command it because it was good? This is a difficult question, and different forms of Christianity have answered in different ways. It is so difficult that many forms of Christianity have refused to address it. It is a conundrum for all monotheistic religions, including Judaism and Islam.
The conundrum is this: While all Christian and monotheistic believers happily affirm that God and His ethics are good, the possible answers to the question require the affirmation of a second point, and that point is less willingly accepted. Indeed, there are two possible points, one for each answer to the question, and both are uncomfortable for monotheists.
If God’s morality is good because He commanded it, then that means that whatever He commanded would have been equally good. He could have commanded anything, and it would have been just as good. God could have decreed that Wednesday was the holy day instead of the Sabbath. And that would be good. He could have decreed that murder or theft were good.
Our ethical and moral sense, therefore, comes from God’s commands. If He had commanded something else, then Christian moral sensibilities would be different. It is rather uncomfortable to think that Christian morality was open to all possibilities before God uttered His commands, and that He arbitrarily chose to declare some actions good and some actions evil.
The alternative answer to our question resolves this problem, but only by creating another one. If God commanded Christian morality because it was good, that means that each rule in it has an essence of goodness. Due to its inherent nature, then, and not because God said it, each command is good in and of itself. When all moral rules are taken together, that means there is a standard of goodness that is independent of God. The standard did not come from God, because then it would evidence the problem of arbitrariness and actually be the answer discussed above. Instead, this moral standard exists apart from God, and existed before God commanded the Jewish and Christian moral rules.
The problem this causes for Christianity, or for any monotheism, is that it creates something ultimate that is not God. It also implies that God is not omnipotent in the area of morality, but consults the standard to ensure the goodness of His moral rules. To be sure, the goodness standard is not a second god, and so does not require the conclusion of polytheism. But, it does mean that God is not alone and that He did not create goodness, but instead followed a pre-existing standard of inherent good.
Of course, this theological conundrum has no impact on the specific character of Christianity’s moral rules. Its ethical demands remain the same whichever answer one takes, and even if one chooses not to address the question. For, in the end, Christianity believes, God’s morality requires obedience, not understanding.
Thanks to James Rachel’s “The Elements of Moral Philosophy” (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986). For information, see the section on Divine Command Theory.

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Ancient Readers

October 14, 2015
When people read the Bible, the works of Homer or any other ancient text, they link themselves to the people who read these works millennia ago. “We have read the same text,” they may think, “so, we are alike.” This happens particularly within religions; modern Christians who read the Bible, for instance, often imagine themselves to be like the ancient Christians who read the same Bible.
But, nothing could be further from the truth. In the ancient world, reading was a different kind of activity from what it is today. The difference in reading indicates a difference in character in three ways.
First, in ancient Mediterranean cultures, the ability to read marked someone as elite, as an influential member of society. Not many people in countries such as Egypt, Palestine, Rome or Greece could read more than a few special words. Reading required learning, which required time. Few members of agricultural societies had the leisure to attend school rather than working for the food and other materials that enabled them and their families to survive.
Although there is some debate over the exact numbers, only 2-7 percent of adult males in antiquity could read. Almost no women could read. Since ancient Judaism emphasized reading’s importance, perhaps a percentage point or two more of their men could read, but probably only in the cities.
Second, in antiquity, people did not read books; they read scrolls. Scrolls were heavy, awkward rolls of parchment or leather, which required manual dexterity to be read. Readers looked at one column at a time, perpendicular to the scroll’s length. To read a new column, one had to take up the finished column onto a roll at one end of the scroll while letting out a new column from the roll at the other end. The new-fangled notion of a codex, or book, with pages bound together on one side, did not become popular until the end of the fourth century -- almost the Middle Ages.
Third, people always read out loud. They did not read silently, as we are taught today in school. St. Augustine, fourth century, tells of his astonishment upon discovering that St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, not only read without sound but without moving his lips. Apparently, Ambrose became hoarse quite easily from speaking. So, he developed a technique of reading that did not strain his voice.
To read, then, was to perform the text, even when one was alone. The meaning of the text resided not on the page, but in the performed, spoken words. This performance required choices, even interpretation, for writing during antiquity had not yet developed ways of representing all elements of the language.
As late as the fifth century, for example, Greek was written in a continuous form with no breaks between the words. Nor did it yet indicate accents and breathing marks. A reader had to know by memory the possible spoken words represented by the incomplete written code. So, the task of a Greek reader was to decipher the written text and render it into speech so that it could be understood. Identifying different locations for word breaks, as well as supplying different required accents and breathings, could change both the sound and the meaning of the words being read.
Semitic languages like Hebrew and Aramaic developed the practice of word separation many centuries before the Greeks. The problem facing these languages was that writing represented the consonants but not the vowels. Readers had to know every possible oral combination of vowels that could be placed with a particular set of consonants to make valid, spoken words.
Readers had to choose the right vowels to give the right meaning. For instance, take the two consonants R and N. One could supply vowels to make the present tense “run” or the past tense “ran.” The letters also could stand for the boy’s name “Ron” or the girl’s name “Erin.”
This requirement of decoding the written text into spoken language means that the complete text existed only while the reader performed it. To be sure, someone could try to remember it. But, if a reader returned to study the written text a few days later, he or she would have to perform it again, and that person may not perform it the same way as he or she did the first time.
So, what makes ancient readers different from today’s readers is that modern readers believe the text to be solid and unchangeable. Ancient readers knew it wasn’t.
This uncertainty led groups of rabbis known as Masoretes to create a set of signs to represent vowels and accents for Hebrew and Aramaic in the ninth century. At that time, the Masoretes used them to identify the words in the biblical text and, thus, to fix its meaning. This aimed to guide future readers so that they would no longer know the uncertainty of the reading experience, which had been common in antiquity.

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Morality: The Face of Public Christianity

September 30, 2015
A non-Christian who read recent newspapers to learn about Christianity might arrive at the following picture. Christianity believes that marriage is between a man and woman, so no marriage between members of the same sex. Christianity believes life begins at conception, so no abortion and no stem cell research. Christianity believes that God created the universe, so evolution should not be taught. Sexual activity belongs in marriage, so no premarital sex.
In this picture, Christianity is about actions that people should or should not do; it is about morality. What is missing from this public Christianity are the religion’s core features. Salvation, Scripture, faith and belief have disappeared from public view. How did this happen?
The story begins in the early 1500s, with the Protestant Reformation. Prior to that, the Christianity of Western Europe was Catholic and centered on community. Based on their doctrinal interpretation of Scripture, Catholicism raised a group of men out of the community to become priests. These priests then mediated between God and the people to bring salvation, forgiveness and blessings from God to the people. The church stood with individuals before God, buffering them in his majestic presence.
Starting in 1517, Martin Luther changed all that. Instead of the church standing with the individual, Luther held that individuals stood alone before God, with only their faith, based on their understanding of Scripture, alongside them.
Despite this theological change, the social reality altered surprisingly little. Individuals still lived in communities and these communities shared a single doctrinal interpretation of Scripture. Individuals did not interpret Scripture on their own, but rather followed their community’s understanding.
Often, these communities were formed around the teachings of influential theologians and leaders. Luther founded the Lutherans; John Calvin founded the Reformed Church and influenced the Puritans; and John Knox organized the Presbyterians. And these are just a few of the communities, the churches, if you will, created from the Reformation.
So, early forms of Protestantism took a similar structure to Catholicism: Each was a community that brought a common interpretation to Scripture which, in turn, led to common social norms (i.e., morality).
The Puritans brought this communally organized Christianity to America, where they established a new community that would help individuals lead moral lives in keeping with the Puritan interpretation of Scripture.
But Luther’s dictum of the individual alone still rang out. When Roger Williams interpreted Scripture for himself in the 1630s, the Massachusetts Puritans expelled him. Williams believed in a radical understanding of Luther’s dictum: The church should be separate from the government so that the church could not use government powers to enforce doctrine and interpretation on individuals.
Williams’ idea become the foundation of America’s religious freedom. By the 1680s, variety was the religious flavor of the era. Formulations of Christian beliefs, called catechisms, proliferated. Puritan preacher Increase Mather thought that “over 500” different catechisms were circulating at the time. Over the next century or more, European immigrants brought in new Protestant denominations and Americans created their own.
By the 1800s, Christians realized all this religious freedom fragmented Christianity and interfered with its ability to accomplish the great deeds needed. So, they banded together into non-denominational organizations to take on moral projects. To accomplish this unity, they overlooked doctrinal features that divided them.
Thus, the great ethical movements of the century were founded: anti-slavery, temperance, women’s suffrage, and missionary projects to evangelize both foreign peoples and the USA’s “unchurched” masses. By the mid-20th century, new non-denominational groups joined with those of a more secular bent in the civil rights and women’s rights movements. The lessons of these movements was that, if the divided Christian populace overlooked matters of doctrine and Scripture interpretation, they could unify on moral issues.
Toward the end of the 20th century, a new alliance of Christians was formed. Since the great moral concerns of slavery and personal civil rights had been resolved (more or less), these groups took up new ones. Thus, the “right to life” movement, for example, took up the cause of the unborn. This brought together an alliance of conservative Protestants, Catholics and Mormons, who were able to overlook their differences on doctrine and Scripture, to unite on what they saw as a great moral concern.
Thus, morality is the great religious unifier, where different religious groups can agree. They may arrive at those moral positions through different doctrinal interpretations of Scripture, even from different versions of Scripture. But, to strengthen their unity, they ignore those differences. The public unity of Christianity, as apparent in American news coverage, comes from morality rather than doctrine.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2015

King James and his Bible

King James grew up as a king, and doubly so. After Queen Elizabeth executed his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, when he was just 1 year old, he became King James VI of Scotland and the intended heir to the English throne after Elizabeth’s death. He was raised by a team of Scottish Presbyterian ministers under the control of his regent but, upon his ascension to the English crown in 1603, having become King James I of England, he seemed suddenly more attuned to English religious politics than Scottish beliefs.
Less than a year after his arrival in England, he officially launched the translation project that would become the King James Bible at a conference in Hampton Court Palace. The complex’s status as a favorite dwelling of King Henry the VIII, the founder of the English church, would not have been lost on the attendees.
The new translation was intended to be a unifying factor, not between Scotland and England, but between the warring factions of the Church of England. For the oversight of the project, James favored the establishment bishops, but a third or more of the 48 “Translators” (as they were known) had Puritan beliefs. Most were connected with Cambridge University, a hotbed of Puritan theology at the time.
The most popular Bible among English Christians at the time was the Geneva Bible, which Puritan scholars had composed in Geneva during their exile from the persecution of Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary”) in the 1550s. Its popularity had soared at the end of the 16th century because the Bishops Bible of 1568, the church’s official Bible, had met with derision. As Adam Nicolson observes, it was “pompous, obscure and often laughable.” Instead of the well-known phrase “Caste thy bread upon the waters,” for instance, it gave “Lay thy bread upon wet faces.”
But James could not simply follow the people’s choice, for the Geneva Bible contained extensive interpretive footnotes, many of which were anti-monarchical, denying that kings and queens had the right to rule. Given that, in 1598, James had written a ringing defense of the “divine right of kings” to govern in his “True Law of Free Monarchies,” this was an anathema.
The new Bible translation would draw upon the best of these two works, while going back to the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts then available. It would undergo several stages of review to ensure both accuracy and understandability. It would be both a pulpit Bible and a people’s Bible: pleasant to read aloud and to oneself.
The new translation did not immediately gain acceptance when it was published in 1611. As when bibles such as the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate and many modern translations had been introduced, people preferred the versions with which they were familiar. But, within a few decades, it had replaced the Bishops Bible and surpassed the Geneva Bible.
The King James Version (KJV) was brought across the Atlantic and became America’s Bible, both for English churches that came here and the churches that originated here, such as the Mormons. Indeed, since copyright did not exist at the time, American printers copied and reprinted the book without compunction -- often introducing mistakes along the way.
Errors in typesetting were not unusual. In 1631, a British printer accidently left out the “not” in Exodus 20:14, thereby rendering one of the Ten Commandments as “Thou shalt commit adultery.” (They were later fined and lost their printing license.)
The King James Version was the dominant English-language Bible for 350 years and had no significant rivals until the Revised Standard Version appeared in the 1950s. Since then, many new translations have been published, but the KJV remains the most popular book in the English language.
Note: This article drew from the books of Adam Nicolson, “God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible,” and of Philip C. Stine, “Four Hundred Years on the Best Seller List.”

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It's OK to Pray in Your School

The school year is arriving again. This seems like a good moment to revisit that continually confused and confusing issue, prayer in schools. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding of what kind of prayer is permitted in the public schools of the United States of America. So let me take this column to review what is and what is not allowed with regard to prayer in public schools.

What kind of prayer is allowed in a public school?

Everyone and anyone who goes to a school may pray there. "Everyone," that means students, teachers, staff and administrators, may offer a private prayer to the divine at anytime they choose. "Anyone," that means any person of any religious faith, be they Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon, or Native American. It also includes members of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Wicca. Even Pagans and Neo-Pagans can pray, as can members of any religion or worshippers of any god or goddess I have not mentioned. Thus praying in the schools is permitted to everyone there, as long as it is private and personal, and does not interrupt legitimate school activities.

It is also OK for students of like beliefs to join together to pray, whether informally ("let's meet at the west door before the bell") or more formally in a religious club of voluntary membership. This club may meet on school property, such as in a classroom, at times when clubs are usually allowed to meet. The only exception to this is if the school has banned clubs altogether. The rule of thumb is that religious clubs must be treated the same as other clubs.

Similarly, it is permitted for teachers, staff, and even administrators to join together voluntarily to pray. Again, this may occur in formal or informal settings.

What kind of prayer is not allowed in a public school?

It is not OK to pray in a school in way that would knowingly or unknowingly coerce anyone of a different belief to join in. Thus teachers, principals and others in a position of authority should not use that position to persuade, require, expect, or intimidate students or others under their supervision to take part in prayer that they otherwise would not. Schools are inherently hierarchical and those who are higher in the hierarchy should do nothing that would seem to exercise that position to make those below them pray.

Similarly, prayer should not be part of public school functions. Although this rule can be a bit vague, the main principle is clear. A general prayer offered in a manner designed to be inclusive of all present, whatever religion they adhere to and articulating generally positive sentiments agreeable to them, is sometimes acceptable, if not done too frequently. Graduation ceremonies can usually include this kind of prayer. Prayers that adhere to a single doctrinal line or reflect a non-inclusive theology do not belong at school functions, even if said by a student. These general prayers should not be ended with a religion-specific phrase, such as, “In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

In general, prayer should not be conducted in such a way to exclude or stigmatize those who do not participate in or follow a particular religion.

Finally, participation in prayer should not be used as a basis to reward or promote those who take part or to withhold such rewards from people who do not. Favoritism should not be shown to members of the same faith and discrimination should not take place against members of different religions. Administrators should takes pains to ensure that even the appearance of favoritism does not arise.


These rules, both positive and negative, are designed to ensure every individual's freedom to believe and worship as they choose, and to prevent the power of the state (as exercised by the school and its employees) from interfering with that right. Those who do not follow such rules may be exercising what they see as their own religious freedom, but they will be doing it at the expense of the religious freedom of others. It is the balance of everyone’s religious freedom that the rules aim to maintain.

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