I’ve never written about politics on this site before. I think the time has come. I’ve spent the evening reading Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This Act is absurd on so many levels, I wish I could just laugh it off. But I can’t. The Act seems designed to hurt people. More particularly: the Act seems designed to give religion the freedom to hurt people.
But before I climb on my soapbox, let’s try something constructive. Let’s read the Act together. Don’t groan! The Act is a simple piece of reading. It’s not even three pages long, and it has wide left and right margins. It’s barely a five minute read. Admittedly, to understand what the Act is saying will take us a little longer, but the Act itself is mind-numbingly simple. Nearly the entire substance of the Act is set forth in a paragraph, found in Section 6 of the Act:
A state action, or an action taken by an individual based on state action, may not substantially burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a law or policy of general applicability, unless the state or political subdivision of the state demonstrates that applying the burden to the person’s exercise of religion is: (1) essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and (2) the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest.
Whew! 2015 has not proved to be a banner year for this blog. Not with my being sidetracked by crunch-time work projects that were actually due in 2014.
There’s also my pursuit of a master’s degree in Jewish Studies, which had me in a classroom for 9 hours a day last week. Not to mention the 1000+ pages of reading assigned for these classes, none of which went easy for a guy like me who hasn’t been enrolled in an actual college classroom for more than 30 years. Not when the readings included gems from the likes of Michael Fishbane, who writes that the Hebrew Bible is based on a “myth of scriptural origin, [where] the divine Reality exteriorizes and condenses itself, at many removes from its animating soul-root, into a verbal text with several layers of meaning.” I get hopelessly stuck in this kind of language. How exactly does something “exteriorize itself”? Is this like being turned inside out?
Let’s see. Where was I, when I last blogged something? Oh, yes. I was talking about the possible discovery of a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that might date back to the late first century. I asked the question, why is an early dating of a book of Scripture so important to some people?
- P52, the John Rylands fragment,
I’m sorry for my absence from this blog! There’s just been too much to do so far this month/year: work, school, all my other writing, life in general …
Enough excuses. I want to write a series of posts this year on the Jewish side of the Bible, those books we call the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, or the Tanakh … they’ve got lots of titles. I’d also like to conclude the series I started last year, on the roots of Christian anti-Judaism and what we can know about the trial and death of Jesus.
But as usual, I’m distracted. It turns out that archaeologists may have discovered the earliest known Gospel fragment, from the Gospel of Mark. We don’t know much about this find … not yet. But from the little information we have so far, it appears that the fragment has been dated to the 80s CE, which would make the fragment 40 to 50 years older than the previously accepted oldest Gospel fragment (the P52 fragment of the Gospel of John, commonly dated to around 130 CE–this is the fragment pictured above).
Now that we’re past New Year’s, it’s high time I finished up my series on Christmas and Hanukkah!
Last time, I left you with a question. I pointed out that as best as we can tell, the original celebration of Hanukkah was a Temple festival celebration: more specifically, it was a celebration of the rededication of the Temple altar in Jerusalem, after the Temple had been defiled by pagan practices during the reign of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV.
What was this first celebration like? Well, we might look to the book of First Maccabees to find out. This books was written by one or more Jewish authors after the successful revolt against Antiochus IV, probably in Hebrew, and it covers the period from the conquest of Israel by Alexander the Great through the first 30 years following the revolt. This book is not part of the Hebrew Bible (it is included in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bibles, but not in the Protestant Bible), but it is nevertheless a book that most Jews today consider to be historically trustworthy. And as I described in the last post, the book describes the first Hanukkah as an eight-day celebration of the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple:
Today is Winter Solstice day, the shortest day of the year if you live in the northern hemisphere, and the longest day if you live south of the equator. From here on in, those of us in the north will enjoy slightly longer days and slightly shorter nights for the next six months. (If if you’re looking forward to earlier sunrises, you need to wait a bit longer: strangely enough, the latest sunrise of the year is not for another couple of weeks.)
Today is also the fifth day of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah [now the sixth day; I didn’t finish this post until after sunset]. I assume most of my readers are familiar with Hanukkah! But if not, let me reference for you an ancient description of Hanukkah. What’s Hanukkah? It’s the day we Jews go to our houses of worship and decorate them with golden crowns and small shields. We sing songs while we play harps, lutes and cymbals.
No, no. That’s not the right description. Let’s start again, this time looking at a different ancient description. What’s Hanukkah? It is a festival of light, where we light candles, one additional candle for each day of the festival. We also give gifts, play gambling games for gold coins (in our day, made of chocolate) and generally celebrate in our homes.
In my last post, I responded to Anthony Le Donne’s piece on the so-called “War on Christmas.” I wrote that from my Jewish perspective, there is no war. There is a holiday called “Christmas” that is enthusiastically celebrated by just about everyone in North America and the U.K., which not coincidentally are the only places I know where this “War” is discussed. The so-called “War” is nothing more than a discussion on how we’d each like to be greeted in December (“Merry Christmas?” “Happy Holidays?” Something else? No greeting?), and what kinds of holiday displays may or may not be too religious to be displayed on government property.
But maybe I’m missing something important here. Anthony posted a comment on my blog where he noted how young non-Christians perceive Christianity as anti-homosexual, judgmental and hypocritical. Anthony opined that “some of these impressions are warranted,” and pointed out that Christians have not faced anything like the kind of hatred experienced by American Jews, Mormons, Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then … he dropped this little bomb on us:
As a parent, I have another view on this. Do I want my children’s classmates, teachers, coaches, friends, etc. to stereotype my kids as “antihomosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, insensitive to others”? Do I want my children to develop this negative self image of themselves? Of course I don’t. Christians are wrong to feel persecuted or think that there is a war being waged… but I understand why my fellow Christians think that people hate them.
Over at The Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne has written an impassioned piece about the so-called War on Christmas. This “war” is a term some pundits use to describe an array of slights against Christians and the Christmas season, from controversies over nativity scenes in public places, to the simple greeting “Happy Holidays” delivered by staff at the Walmart.
You could write a book about it. In fact, Fox News’ John Gibson has written a book about it. It’s available in hardcover at amazon.com for $0.01 (not much of a profit margin, but maybe they make it up in volume). Here’s a blurb from the book’s page on Amazon:
In the United States of America, a nation overwhelmingly Christian, literally any sign of Christmas in public can now lead to complaints, litigation, angry protests, threats, and bruised feelings. Every year the limitations get tighter and tighter and spread to more and more communities, far from the big liberal cities. And as Fox News Channel’s John Gibson reveals in this shocking exposé, it’s not happening by accident.
Secular liberals say they’re just protecting the constitutional rights of non-Christians who don’t want to see or hear about Christmas. But what about the constitutional rights of millions of Americans who simply want to celebrate their traditional holiday—without insulting anyone else but also without having to hide behind closed doors?
Hiding behind closed doors? Really? When every mall and town square is decorated for Christmas for a solid month? When the media is saturated with Christmas advertising, Christmas-themed programming, and worst of all (shudder!), Christmas music? (Much of this music was written by Jews, for whatever that’s worth.) What holiday is celebrated in the West with more enthusiasm, with more stamina and more publicly than Christmas?
I am thinking about the Bible as a sacred commons.
In most general terms, a “common” is any public resource that by law or practice may not be privately owned, or where the public retains rights even where privately owned. Some examples of commons are tidal waters and certain public grazing lands. But when I think of a “commons,” I think of a feature of many of the towns I’ve visited in New England, in the northeast United States. These towns are built around a “commons,” typically “an irregular grassy plot flanked by a tall, steepled church or two and an aging Victorian-style town hall.”
The origin of these New England commons is something of a mystery. They may have started out as common grazing lands, or they may have been organized for purposes of mutual defense. In some sense, these commons belonged to all. Residents of the town might cut down the commons’ trees for firewood, or remove its stones for building purposes. The commons contained the town’s meeting house, and church (or churches). The local militia might drill there, and store their armaments there. The town’s school might be built there. The town’s tavern might be built there. When court convened, it was probably at a building on the commons. Paths and cart tracks crossed the commons in every direction; merchants located their shops nearby. You might find the community bulletin board there, as well as the stocks or whipping post for the punishment of wrongdoers. History might even be made on the commons—the American Revolution began with a skirmish on the commons of Lexington, Massachusetts.
In my last post, I returned to one of my favorite recent topics: violence in the Bible. My focus there was on the Hebrew Bible books of Joshua and Judges. I concluded that post with the question: how do we come to grips with a G-d who insists that G-d’s people must engage in total war, and who leads G-d’s people onto the battleground, in many cases demanding the total destruction of the enemy?
Here’s a particularly chilling illustration of what I mean, taken from the book of 1 Samuel. G-d orders Saul, the newly appointed first King of the Israelites, to attack the Amalekites:
Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.