Religion Today

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Do Eclipses Have Meaning? Anxiety, Religion and Math

Wyomingites are making eclipse plans. Many of us intend to see it, even if that means traveling and dealing with the crowds. Others will leave the state to avoid those crowds, while some of us will just stay in place and get on with life.
Some Americans apparently suffer from “eclipse anxiety,” the uneasy feeling that an eclipse is more than a natural phenomenon but a sign of something important, even a disaster.
If we imagine ourselves back in time, this is understandable. Prior to our modern, urbanized life where lights are always on and we cower in heated or air-conditioned buildings 90 percent of the day, our ancestors lived a rural existence. Farming and agricultural activities put the vast majority of people outside most of the time.
They became highly aware of the movements of the sun, moon and stars because they saw them every day, at least when the weather did not interfere. They knew the sun shined every day, traversing the sky from east to west on a predictable course. They could even tell the time of day from its regular movement.
So a sudden disappearance of the sun would be upsetting, even terrifying. It would represent a departure from the way people knew the cosmos worked. The sun was predictable. Since almost no one would have experienced an eclipse before in their lives, the eclipse would demonstrate that the eternal patterns of the natural world, the world which their God (or gods) created, could be altered. And, that can’t be good.
A quick survey of the world’s religions reveals three main responses to eclipse anxiety.
First, the most common response is that an eclipse comprises a portent of a tragedy. Sometimes, this is a natural event, like a drought or flood, but usually it is a political event such as the death of a ruler or the defeat of an army in battle. Some Christians believe that the unnatural darkness that followed Jesus’ death was an eclipse.
So, when an eclipse takes place, religious figures work to ameliorate the coming disaster. Priests offer sacrifices to the gods. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus states that, when an eclipse occurred during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians, they quickly negotiated peace.
Secondly, other religions downplay the notion of an eclipse as a portent. In Islam, when an eclipse happened on the day Muhammad’s son Ibrahim died, many followers interpreted the eclipse as predicting the death. Muhammad denied this, saying, “The sun and the moon are two signs amongst the signs of Allah. They do not eclipse because of someone’s death or life. So, when you see them, invoke Allah and pray till the eclipse is clear.” An eclipse, in his view, was an opportunity for prayer -- nothing more.
Similarly, Navajo traditionally stayed inside their homes during an eclipse, singing special songs and fasting. In their view, the world goes out of balance at an eclipse, and they help bring it back into line.
Finally, many religions realized that eclipses could be predicted. After all, the sun moves predictably along the ecliptic path, and the moon is only five degrees off from it. Even though they move at different speeds, they cross paths on a regular basis. From there, it is simply a matter of observation and math. Once you work out the pattern and know the date of one eclipse, you can calculate the others.
Many ancient cultures built observatories to assist them in this process. Ancient Britons built one at Stonehenge, while others are known from Babylonia, Mesoamerica and Asia.
Today, the math for predicting solar eclipses is widely known. It is based on the elliptical movement of the earth around the sun; the elliptical movement of the moon around the earth; and the tilt and wobble of the earth itself. With the right data, a high school student can work out the date of past or future eclipses. So, even though our ancestors thought eclipses broke their experience of nature, eclipses are actually one of nature’s cycles.
Furthermore, while eclipses are rare for individuals, they are a common occurrence. Despite what the hype about America’s 2017 eclipse may lead you to believe, solar eclipses happen two to four times every year somewhere on Earth.

Note: This essay draws upon “How Eclipse Anxiety Helped Lay the Foundation for Modern Astronomy” by Maya Wei-Haas ( and NASA’s eclipse website (

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Did Jesus Use Jergens Body Lotion?

Look through any collection of classical art and study the depictions of Jesus’ body. You will find portrayals of Jesus as skinny or heavily muscled. An adult Jesus may have a younger man’s body or a “dad body.” Artists show him clothed, semi-clothed or naked. They often depict his wounded body at the crucifixion—sometimes with blood.
                But in the many different paintings of Jesus’ body from artists in a multitude of countries and across a millennia of art-making he nearly always has perfect skin. Sure he may have a wound where the soldier’s spear poked him in the side or cuts on his back where he was flogged. But elsewhere on his body, his skin is without blemish.
                This is not just misleading, but downright inaccurate. The body of Jesus of Nazareth, who had a rural upbringing and spent years of his adulthood walking the countryside, would have been covered in scratches. In fact, he probably spent much of life healing from injuries to his skin. And not him alone, but all of his fellow Galileans.
                Why? Because most of the native flora in northern Israel, within 20-30 miles of Nazareth, is out to get you.
                I know this from personal experience. Earlier this summer, I spent three weeks walking the hills on the west side of the Jezreel Valley. At 8 hours a day, I logged over 300 miles of walking (usually at temperatures where they tell you to get out of the sun). On the other side of the valley was Nazareth, less than 15 miles away.
                What I discovered was this: Eighty percent of the flora has thorns, thistles, spikes, or barbs. It grows prolifically. It is tall. It is overgrown. The bushes grow into the trails and the thistles invade the fields.
                And these plants are not small. The average size for one thistle species was chest-height. But that was average; it often grew well above my head. And I am six feet tall. Once it dried out for the summer (in mid-May), the thorns became hard and inflexible.
                I often encountered this thistle in fields, among the wheat. We forget how much weed killer we spray on fields in modern farming. That did not happen in Jesus’ time. So the thistles would grow with the weeds. A farmer might be able to pull out some of them, but often had to let the weeds grow with the crop and then separate them at harvest. (See Matthew 13.) Whenever he worked in his fields, he encountered these vicious thistles.
                Often the bushes would grow tall and wide, pushing with their thorns into and over trails. To move down such a trail you need to make yourself small and inch slowly between the thorny bushes. You could get 10 feet down such a tight patch and just when you thought you were free, you find a vine with sharp thorns growing across the trail. So you stand there with thorns poking through your skin while you disentangle the vine.
                This was my experience with Israel’s plant life; and I wore long trousers, ankle-high leather work boots, and a long-sleeved shirt. Imagine what it would have been like for Jesus, who would have worn open-toe sandals and a robe. And if he was working outside he would have “girded his loins” by tying the robe around his groin and leaving his legs bare. That provides no protection from scratches.
                Today we have paved roads, streets and sidewalks; we can get on them and escape the thorns and thistles. But once Jesus left the protection of a town, he would have walked down dirt trails from village to village. Trails that would not have been maintained except by travelers. Roman built roads were few and far between, and not near a backwater like Galilee at all.

                So even if Jesus could have used Jergens Body Lotion, it would not have given him perfect skin. The natural world within which he lived his daily life was just too likely to scratch him every time he went out.

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Jesus the Sailor

There are several locations that Christians immediately associate with the life of Jesus. There is Bethlehem, in Judea, where Jesus was born; Nazareth, in Galilee, where he grew up; and Jerusalem, where he was crucified. These are the places where Jesus began and ended his life. But, the places where Jesus carried out his ministry are less familiar.
The most frequently mentioned town and, perhaps, the most memorable, is Capernaum. Jesus seems to have made his ministry’s headquarters there -- at the home of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Not only does Jesus return again and again, but when the gospels of Mark and Luke say Jesus “returned to his hometown,” they usually mean Capernaum rather than Nazareth.
It should then not be surprising that many of the other named locations of his ministry are near Capernaum, such as Ginnesar, Chorazin, Bethsaida and Gergesa. These are the most frequently mentioned places in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and most of Jesus’ ministry takes place in and around them.
These towns bring out another observation about Jesus’ ministry. It took place around the Sea of Galilee. Several other events, such as Jesus driving out demons or preaching to large crowds, take place at unnamed locations “in the wilderness” on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. At another point, Jesus takes a trip into the “cities of the Decapolis,” a region on the southeast shore of the Sea of Galilee.
All this points to a single conclusion. For most of his ministry, Jesus based himself on the Sea of Galilee and used it as a means of transportation. This shows that Jesus took advantage of the fastest mode of transportation in the ancient world, the sailboat. Neither walking nor riding on donkeys or camels could match the speed or the comfort of moving about on the water. By sailing, Jesus could cover the most “ground” in the least amount of time.
While Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee were good transportation choices for Jesus’ activities, it raises the question: What was Jesus doing so far from home? In the ancient world, few people ever traveled more than a day’s walk -- about 15 miles -- from the place where they were born. After all, their entire family, the family land, as well as their livelihood and responsibilities were all right there.
To leave familial territory was to cut off contact with one’s family, for there were no means of communication. Few people could read or write a letter but, even if they could, there was no postal service. And, of course, the telephone and email were millennia in the future. So, what Jesus was doing was a two-day journey, some 30 miles by road, away from his home in Nazareth.
Most of the gospels ignore this question, but Luke addresses it head-on. In Luke’s story, once John the Baptist baptized Jesus, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. Jesus then returned to Nazareth where, in the synagogue, he claimed to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of being God’s chosen messenger (Luke 4). This bold claim was seen by the villagers as blasphemy, and they attempted to carry the appropriate punishment -- death -- for this sin. They only could see him as Joseph’s son, who had grown up among them, rather than a prophet. Jesus escaped from them and left the area. According to Luke, Jesus then proceeded directly to Capernaum to begin his ministry around the Sea of Galilee.
So, Jesus picked the best location in Galilee for his ministry, the transportation center of the Sea of Galilee. In doing so, he left his home region behind, but he was pushed out by the inability of those with whom he had grown up to grasp his new role.

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What the Bible Does Not Tell Us

The books of the Bible were not organized in a systematic way. The Old Testament was not even collected at the same time. It is more like a family library, passed down through generations and added to when one descendant or another had an opportunity.
In the fifth century B.C., Ezra knew only the Torah, Genesis to Deuteronomy. In the second century B.C., two Jewish writers speak of the Torah and the Prophets, as well as “other books of our ancestors.” Perhaps these were Psalms and Proverbs, or maybe Chronicles.
At the end of the first century, the Jewish priest Josephus talks of a 22-volume canon of the Hebrew Bible; the present Hebrew Bible, which is equivalent to the Protestant Old Testament, has 24 books. The rabbis in the early third century echo Josephus, revealing uncertainty about Esther and Song of Songs. Ultimately, they decided to include the two books.
This haphazard procedure was guided largely by theological concerns, and not by any sense of history or linguistics. Those who made the choices did so because they believed the books revealed and explained important theological beliefs, religious practices or pious behavior.
The resulting picture of the Israelites, therefore, is incomplete. It leaves out key information. To gain a fuller understanding of the ancient Hebrews, then, we must supplement the Bible with knowledge gained from archaeology and writings from other ancient cultures.
Some of the missing information is linguistic. The average American adult has a vocabulary of 20,000-30,000 words. The Old Testament contains only 8,000 distinct words. Not a complete language by any means.
Its books use the word for nephew, for example, but not niece. They speak of sewing but never of needles. They mention knives and forks but never spoons. They talk about combing one’s hair, but never use the word for comb. Since needles, spoons and combs appear regularly in the archaeological record, the failure to mention them in these books does not mean the Israelites lacked them.
The biblical books also left out important historical information.
For instance, during the four centuries before Joshua and the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan, it was controlled by Egypt. The books describing the Israelites’ entrance into Canaan never indicate that Israelites fought Egyptians, or even mention Egyptians, even though the Egyptians controlled Canaan longer than the United States of America has been a country.
The Merneptah Stele, erected by Pharaoh Merneptah in 1207 B.C., describes his military expedition to Canaan during which he conquered a people called “Israel,” along with other opponents. This battle goes without remark in the biblical books.
Once the Israelites were in Canaan, biblical books widely report that Israelites used horses. Chariots were a frequent mode of transportation, at least among the nobility and the military. But what the books do not reveal is that Israel’s chariotry made the Israelites a military powerhouse in the eighth century B.C.
It was not until the 1861 discovery of the Kurkh Monolith, a carved stone stela written by the Assyrian emperor Shalmaneser III, that this became apparent.
Shalmaneser spent much of his reign trying to break through to the eastern Mediterranean coast from Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). The Kurkh Monolith states that, in 853 B.C., Shalmaneser defeated a coalition of 11 smaller countries at Qarqar, along the northeastern Mediterranean coast. Among these was Israel, under the leadership of King Ahab.
To make the size of his victory clear, Shalmaneser listed the number of soldiers, cavalry and chariots each country brought to the battle. Israel brought 2,000 chariots, far more than the next country, Damascus, which brought only 1,200.
Two thousand chariots represented enormous military strength and required a large support system. Chariots were expensive and required regular maintenance. Each chariot would have had three horses assigned to it: two to pull it and one in reserve. That would mean 6,000 horses would have gone north to the battle.
At the site of Megiddo, one of King Ahab’s largest cities, archaeologists found remains of a large stable near the main gate. This suggests that the Jezreel Valley, with its large fields, was a key location for managing such large herds.

So, while the Old Testament provides some indication of Israel’s language and history, we need to look to archaeology and the written records of other countries to understand more fully the Israelites and the books they wrote.

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