Religion Today

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Romans, Jews and Christians at Legio, Israel: Early Evidence for Christianity in Ancient Palestine

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” And, that is the story the New Testament tells. The apostle Paul’s letters are addressed to churches he founded across the northern Mediterranean lands and, although the Acts of the Apostles begins in Jerusalem, it quickly moves to stories of evangelizing gentiles in the countries beyond Galilee and Judea.
The land of Israel became important to early Christianity only under Emperor Constantine, who, in the early fourth century, made Christianity an accepted religion across the Roman Empire. He sent his mother, Queen Helena, to Israel to identify locations important to Jesus and the Bible, building churches at those sites. Within a century, the land that early Christians had left to evangelize the world became the Holy Land, and pilgrims began arriving to visit the sacred sites with their new churches.
But, what of the Christians who stayed in Israel in the first century; did they flourish? That is a good question. The historian Eusebius mentions bishops in Jerusalem, Caesarea and Maximianopolis, but we know little about the Christians they led. Did Christianity flourish and increase in Israel after Jesus’ resurrection, maintain only a small presence or die out? We know surprisingly little. While archaeologists have made extensive finds and excavated churches from the time of Constantine and his successors, there have been few finds from previous centuries.
So, when archaeologists announced the excavation of a Christian prayer hall near the ancient site of Megiddo in Israel 12 years ago, initial expectations hoped that here, finally, were archaeological remains of the early Christians of Israel. In the end, however, it turned out to be something totally different. The prayer hall showed that Christians not only served in the Roman army, but they were accepted and their worship acknowledged as legitimate.
Megiddo, what the New Testament calls Armageddon, was located at the crossroads of important ancient roads for more than two millennia. After the city mound was abandoned, the area continued to be inhabited and, by the first century, a village of Jews and Samaritans known as Kefar Othnay had grown up at the crossroads.
When the Roman Empire decided to station a legion in Palestine, it settled on these crossroads as the place from which most of Palestine could be quickly reached. Ultimately, six Roman “highways” linked this location to the rest of the province, including Jerusalem, Galilee, Ptolemais and Caesarea.
The 6th Roman Legion spent 170 years in this base, known as Legio. Situated next to Kefar Othnay, it became the site’s name from the early second century to the end of the third century.
While the wall around Legio’s army base separated the village from the camp, the soldiers and the villagers led intertwined lives. This is clear from the Christian prayer hall, for it was located in the village but in a building controlled by the legion.
The building in which the prayer hall was located was large, about 65 feet by 100 feet. It served primarily as living quarters for Roman officers (centurions). One part of it was set aside for a commercial bakery. The discovery of bread stamps -- bearing the names of the bakers next to the ovens -- indicates that it supplied the soldiers of the army base.
The prayer hall itself comprised a small, 15-by-30-foot room within the larger building. Paved with a mosaic, mostly laid out in geometric patterns but with a depiction of two fish (early symbols of Christianity), it contained a table-shaped podium in the center. According to an inscription, the table was offered as a memorial to the “God Jesus Christ.”
A larger inscription makes clear that the room was constructed by army officials, for it credits one Gaianus, a “centurion” and a “brother,” with paying for its construction. Since the prayer hall is in a Roman building housing officers and paid for by a Roman centurion, it is clear that the hall was constructed for Christian officers and soldiers.
Whether the army men became Christians after being stationed in Palestine or they had been Christians when they arrived is unclear. But, this level of recognition indicates that at Legio, Christians were acceptable in the Roman army and could freely practice their beliefs.

If you are in Laramie April 18, come hear Matt Adams, director of the Albright Archaeological Institute in Jerusalem, speak about the army base and Christian prayer hall at Roman Legio. His talk, “Armageddon and the Roman VIth Ferrata Legion: New Excavations at Legio, Israel, and Early Jewish-Christian-Roman Relations,” will begin at 4:10 p.m. in Room 214 of the University of Wyoming’s Classroom Building.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Today’s Evangelical Message on College Campuses

There have always been religious organizations on college campuses. Some were quiet and private, while others were loud and boisterous, always ready to tell others about themselves.
In the 1980s, perhaps the most visible student religious groups were evangelical. Not only were evangelical churches represented, but there was Campus Crusade for Christ, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the Navigators and others.
The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word “euangelion” -- meaning “good news” -- and was rendered into English as “gospel.” And, that is just what these evangelical groups do through their visibility. They have been sharing the good news -- telling others about the message of salvation that Jesus’ actions have given to all human beings. To be saved, all one had to do was to accept that Jesus had saved them.
Trying to save other people also served as a form of recruitment for evangelical campus groups. When a person was saved, they usually joined one of these religious organizations or a church. Those who did not join rarely remained in their new state of salvation, but returned to their former friends and behavior.
From the late 1960s onward, these evangelical youth groups grew and formed a vibrant part of campus life in many colleges and universities. At the same time, seeds were being sown that, today, a half-century later, are damaging the message of salvation on these campuses.
Under the leadership of Richard Nixon, who was president from 1969 to 1974, the Republican Party brought evangelicals into a new coalition, the “silent majority,” along with many Catholics, through the politicization of abortion. Evangelical and Catholic Christians, who had largely stayed out of politics prior to that time, seized on the issue of abortion’s legalization. As the Republican Party vowed to stamp it out, it gained widespread support of these religious groups.
On the flip side, abortion became a religious issue, with both evangelical and Catholic leaders and churches railing against, making it a topic of sermons and transforming it into the epitome of evil.
From that small beginning, two things happened. Evangelicals became increasingly Republican, and the message of the gospel, the good news of salvation, had to gradually give larger amounts of time to the anti-abortion message.
National polling from the late 1970s onward has measured a growing drop-off in the number of Christians and an increasing body of people unwilling to identify with Christianity. The change was slow at first but, by 2012, the percentage of Americans in this category -- what pollsters call “none of the above” or just “nones” -- had risen to just under 20 percent. Evangelicals themselves, by contrast, had fallen to 19 percent, while Protestants, for the first time in American history, dipped below 50 percent (Pew Research Center, “The Decline of Institutional Religion,” 2013).
If this analysis is correct, the change should have begun about the time that evangelicals became a key part of the Republican Party. That was the moment in which accepting salvation also meant that one had to join, not just an evangelical church but also the Republican Party. Many who were willing to accept Christ were unwilling to accept Republicanism. So, they turned their back on both.
And, the polling shows that people have been making the decision in this manner. The younger one is, the more likely one is to be a none. More than 32 percent (in 2012) of the under-30s were nones, while in the 30-50-year-old range, 21 percent were nones. It is only among the over-50s that 15 percent or fewer are nones.
And, what is the message of campus evangelical organizations today? That the current president is worthy of Christian support. That, despite his moral failings, he is the “evangelicals’ man.” They put him in the White House and continue to support him vociferously, despite his daily tweets providing new reminders of his moral ineptitude.

Even more than in the 1970s and the 1980s, the message of salvation that Jesus enjoined his followers to spread among all the world before he ascended into heaven is being drowned out by political messages. It will be interesting to discover, in the coming decades, what impact this has had on people accepting the salvation that Christianity has taught that Jesus brought.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Surprises About Anti-Religious Crime in America

February 14, 2018

By Paul V.M. Flesher

The FBI collects statistics about hate crimes in the United States. These are crimes that were motivated by hatred against the victims -- whether a hatred of their race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. A look at the information from 2016, the most recent year available, reveals a number of surprises, especially about hate crime directed at religions and religious people.
The first surprise is that there are so few crimes motivated by hatred of a particular religion. For 2016, only 1,273 such crimes were reported to the FBI by police departments around the nation. For a country of 323 million people, that is quite low.
Let’s put that number in perspective. Crime is reported as a rate per 100,000 people. In 2016, the national violent crime rate was 386 crimes per 100,000 people, while the national property crime rate was 2,450 per 100,000 people. Anti-religious crime of all types was only 0.39 per 100,000 people.
            Now, it is known that hate crime figures are underreported. But, even if they were underreported by 1,000 percent, the crime rate would be only about 4 per 100,000 people. When compared to the property crime rate of 2,450 per 100,000 individuals, it is clear that there is no epidemic of anti-religious crime; however, such individual incidents may be featured in the media.
The second surprise is that anti-religious crime does not make a large percentage of hate crimes. Anti-religious hate crimes represent only 21 percent of all hate crimes in the USA. Most hate crimes are inspired by racial or ethnic hatred.
The third surprise is that, despite regular media reports about the vandalism of synagogues, mosques and even churches (especially black churches), religious institutions are not the most frequent target of anti-religious crimes. People are the most common target. Individuals and their family homes were assaulted in 51 percent of the 1,273 anti-religious crimes reported. Businesses were the second-highest target at 11 percent, while religious institutions comprised just 9 percent of the crimes.
The fourth surprise is that, despite the claims we hear in the media about Christians suffering anti-Christian bias, Christians are not frequently the targets of anti-religion hate crimes. Of the 1,584 victims of anti-religious attacks, Jews and Jewish institutions constitute more than half of the victims, 54 percent. And, despite all the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, in 2016, Muslims were the victims of only 24 percent of anti-religious crimes. Christians and their churches were victims of anti-religious hate crimes in only 11 percent of the incidents.
The focus on Jews and Jewish institutions as targets indicates the continued presence of Christian-based anti-Semitism within our country. The fewer anti-Muslim crimes suggest that the anti-Muslim fervor has not caught on as thoroughly at this point. The few anti-Christian crimes are most likely Christian-on-Christian crimes: Think white Christians against black Christians and their churches, or attacks on Mormon or Jehovah Witness missionaries going door to door.
The fifth surprise is that anti-religious crimes usually aim to intimidate rather than injure. Most crimes against individuals do not even rise to the level of violent crimes; 87 percent of them are simple assault or (verbal) intimidation. With regard to crimes against property, most (86 percent) are vandalism, property damage and occasional destruction -- again, intimidation rather than theft.The one exception to this characterization is that 13 percent of anti-Muslim crime is aggravated assault, far more than against victims of any other religion.

The take-away point is that anti-religious crime is quite uncommon in the United States, despite sensationalist media reports. Individuals and their homes are the most common victims of these crimes, and the vast majority of the victims are Jewish or Muslims. Christians make up a small minority of the victims of anti-religious attacks.

Note: Thanks to Cameron Walker, of the Laramie Boomerang, whose recent column on hate crimes inspired this analysis.

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