Sunday, March 29, 2015

Finding Jesus (TV) – The True Cross (ep. 5/6)

We have now entered Holy Week and the series takes on the subject of the cross.
Does the wooden cross that Jesus was crucified upon exist? Did Helena (mother of emperor Constantine) really discover the true cross? Hacked up into pieces and spread around the world, are any of the wooden relics really part of the true cross? Where did these come from?
There are over a thousand supposed fragments of the cross. They are everywhere! They can't all be real. John Calvin was one of the first to question their authenticity. Charles de Ferry mapped out the relics and claims that all the relics out together could only account for 10% of the cross, meaning it is possible for the relics to be from the Cross.
Brief background on Helena and Constantine, and his conversion to Christianity. A scandal in the Constantine house. His son Crispus has an affair with Constantine' second wife and put to death. But Fausta may have manufactured the affair to favor her own sons as heir. She is placed in a chamber to be killed by heat exposure. Helena may have seen her son as lost by his sins of murder. Her search may have had to do with penance. (Really, this early in Christian history? But then, these are Roman converts from paganism.)
Dramatized scenes of Helena' search in Jerusalem. It is now a secular, pagan city. Nothing is left of the Jewish past. Her search allows her to enter into the passion and footsteps of Jesus.
Emperor Hadrian in 135 built a pagan temple over the spot of Jesus' crucifixion. The Legend of Helena in finding the true cross emerges around 350. In the legend Helena digs in this spot and three crosses are uncovered. One of these is supposedly the actual cross on which Jesus died. Helena divides up the cross into pieces.
This is the moment when the Cross turns from a symbol of defeat and death to something to be revered, something that Christians are willing to accept as part of their devotion and religion.
Testing of one of the relics located at Waterford, Ireland. Given by the Pope around a thousand years ago.
Back to Helena. She builds churches to commemorate various aspects of Jesus' life. She begins the traditions of having specific Christian buildings (i.e., churches) for public meeting. Prior to this Christians generally met in private. Helena turns Palestine into the Holy Land.
Is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the right spot? Did Helena really find the true Cross? Helena dies not long after her return to Rome. Constantine dies after a few more years. He became a Christian but did not act like one for most of his life. But there is evidence he may have had a full conversion in his final year.
Back to testing the Waterford Cross. Dates to 1100AD. It is too recent to be the True Cross. It does match the fate of the container and inscriptions. That doesn't mean there aren't others that may be.
This episode was about Helena, Constantine, when Christianity became recognized by the Empire, and the origins of the cross as the symbol of Christianity. It was a fascinating look into early Christianity via the means of the True Cross. This episode, unlike the earlier ones, did not quote a single Bible text.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Finding Jesus (TV) – James Ossuary (ep. 4/6)

Who was James, the brother of Jesus? And is the ossuary authentic?
In 2002, an ossuary is unveiled, dating to the correct period, with an inscription "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" in Aramaic. There is no physical evidence from Jesus himself. If the ossuary is genuine, it could be the first physical evidence connected to Jesus.

Who are Jesus' siblings? Catholics have one view. Protestants have a different view. This program seems to lean toward the latter. What about Jesus' infancy and childhood? There is the infancy gospel of Thomas, dated to about 100 years after Jesus' death. It portrays Jesus and James as children, together.

Details about ancient ossuaries and how they were used. How the James Ossuary was discovered. Process of authentication. The ossuary is authentic, but did it belong to James, the brother of Jesus? Statistics based on names suggest the combination of all three together is nearly improbable.

Program assumes Joseph dies early, leaving Jesus to be head of household. Unprecedented in this culture, Jesus leaves his household and his role as primary provider for the entire family. This would have created tensions within his family and social marginalization with the rest of the village. Jesus' ministry and behaviors were not honorable acts. It brought shame to the family. Jesus' actions go against the powers of civility and order. His gathering of crowds aroused the Romans. In response his family comes to perform an intervention. In response he seems to reject his biological family.

Palm Sunday. Arrest. Execution. Jesus' family has failed to save Jesus.

How did this affect James? The Gospel of the Hebrews (apocryphal) describes James' reaction: a period of grieving and fasting, something no other disciple or family member is recorded to have done. But this suddenly ends. Quoting 1 Corinthians 15:4-7, the appearance of Jesus to James. Perhaps this appearance is when James changes his view of Jesus. (Program 50%)

Back to the ossuary. Israelis demand the ossuary' return. Israeli authorities claimed there was evidence for forgery. Oded Golan is arrested and charged with fraud and forgery. The contention is that Oded added "brother of Jesus" to the inscription. GWU professor Rollston, based on the differences in inscriptions, believes the probability of forgery is 75%. Investigation of the patina to determine claim of forgery. March 2012, Oded Golan is found guilty of trade of relics, but found not guilty of forgeries.

But the court verdict says nothing about the authenticity of the ossuary in regard to James.

In Gospel of Thomas, Jesus' disciples are instructed to go to James for leadership. He becomes the leader of the Jerusalem church. But then Paul shows up. The question of what to do about gentiles and where they fit as followers of Christ. Was there a conflict of authority between James and Paul? The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 gives evidence that there was a conflict and it came to a head. This is the start of the separation of Christianity from Judaism. James eventually sides with Paul, but he is now branded a foe of Judaism.

Jerusalem AD62. James given ultimatum to renounce Jesus or face death. He refuses and is pushed off the Temple wall, but he does not die. He is stoned to death. A year later his bones are placed into an ossuary.
James is still venerated in Jerusalem by the Armenian church. Believers believe his remains are still under the St. James Cathedral.
We will probably never know if the James of the ossuary is the brother of Jesus.
What this controversy has done is raise the profile of James the Just, his role in early Christianity, and the fact that Jesus had siblings most likely by Mary. James is an important transition figure between Judaism and Christianity.
Once more in this series, the relic is the conversation starter. The program is more about the historical aspects of James than it is about the ossuary. In a way, this is a bit click-baitish, using Web terminology. It uses the hype around the relic to bring a more informed discussion to the public who may not otherwise tune in to or read about less prominent, but nonetheless important figures such as James.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Finding Jesus (TV): Judas Iscariot (ep. 3/6)

imageIs Judas the ultimate symbol of evil, the worst possible human? Or does the Gospel Of Judas change what we have traditionally accepted as the relationship between Jesus and Judas?
Jesus saw something special in all of the disciples he chose. Judas was no exception. He was even entrusted with the purse, so he must have been particularly special (hmm..). (Some dramatic footage showing Jesus saving Judas from going over a cliff.)
Approaching final Passover, Jesus anointed with expensive ointment by a woman. Judas has a problem with that. An argument ensues(?) between Jesus and Judas. This is the catalyst that sends Judas to betray Jesus.
Some info on Jerusalem during Passover and the tension it brought with the occupying Romans.
But why does Judas really betray Jesus? Greed doesn't seem like a plausible reason. Was he a Zealot and became frustrated with Jesus' inaction, that causing a confrontation would force Jesus' hand?
The tension builds into the Last Supper. Confrontations increase between Jesus and the authorities during this final week. The meal is supposed to be a time of coming together. But this is where Jesus announces someone will betray him, and Judas leaves the meal. This meal is definitely not following the traditional Passover pattern.
Judas kisses Jesus in the garden as a sign of betrayal. The sign of love becomes the action of betrayal. The name Judas becomes synonymous with traitor. But is this the only view of Judas? The Gospel of Judas tells a different tale. (This brings this episode about a third of the way.)
The Gospel is discovered in Egypt in 1978, surfacing in Geneva. How the "owner" of the codex tries to sell it but without success. Until two decades later. Story of its mistreatment and restoration. It still must be authenticated. Both the papyrus and ink come back as ancient. In 2008 it is finally revealed to the public. It was probably written around the 2nd century. Author is unknown. It is not a gospel according to, but a gospel about Judas.
The gospel is set at the time of the Last Supper, providing a different picture from he Bible text. The Jesus of the Gospel speaks in strange riddles. Only Judas has the courage to speak to Jesus. Only Judas is the one who Jesus is comfortable revealing secrets about himself and the cosmos. (Halfway through episode.)
Secrets are revealed through a strange vision which Judas is allowed to see. (Dramatization of Jesus and Judas in vision.) Judas realizes he has been asked to betray Jesus. God has sent Jesus to die for the sins of humankind, so someone must betray him to fulfill God's divine plan. In the gospel Judas is not a traitor but a hero.
April DeConick of Rice Univ. doubts this interpretation. She studies the text herself to see what it says. She sees mistakes in translation and emendations that don't fit the context. She discovers a particular line and a word that when translated differently changes the meaning of the entire gospel. Instead of a holy vision, Judas is he thirteenth demon in this alternative. He is not a hero, but a fallen angel, a demon.

But also in 2008 additional papyrus fragments are found and the gospel is complete. (Three-quarters through episode.)
The final page shows who goes into the cloud. The final fragment shows that it was Jesus who entered, not Judas. The Gospel of Judas is not really about Judas. It is a criticism of the disciples. The point of the gospel is that none of the disciples are good; they are all misguided idiots. All the disciples are villains in this text. The dream sequence is actually a horrific nightmare that the disciples see; in fact Jesus is telling them that they (all) will be the ones who will betray him.
It is a text criticizing the betrayal of Jesus by the Christianity of the second century, the increasing religiosity and the power and authority becoming concentrated in a few. The gospel is a polemic against institutionalized Christianity. It provides an alternate view of the development of the church. It is no wonder that the bishop of Lyon condemns it as heresy in 180AD.
The story of Judas' end is one of Judas giving up on himself. It is not God giving up on Judas. Judas cannot believe he could be forgiven and return to Jesus. Judas is not a horrific villain and only evil and a monster. His is a story of a complicated human who makes some poor decisions, and ultimately cannot believe God is as merciful as Jesus tried to depict.
Once more CNN’s presentation in this episode is informative and balanced. Where it discusses biblical texts, it remains pretty close and does not invent fanciful details that are not supported by the text. Where it discusses the Gospel of Judas, it starts with the part that most of the public has heard about it, and then goes to provide an alternate and arguably better position which seems to have eluded the majority of public consciousness.

Sermon: Snakes!


The following is the sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church in Petersburg on March 15, 2014.


The Bible is full of different kinds of stories. Some are feel-good, others are more challenging. Some are peculiar, and a few are quite bizarre. Today’s story about the snakes attacking the Israelites falls into the bizarre. Not only bizarre, but also quite challenging because the picture of God is not particularly flattering; and it wouldn’t be at all irresponsible to say that the God here resembles a petty, vengeful, and capricious deity of the nations surrounding Israel.

What do we do with this story? It’s in the Bible. Two common ways of dealing with this text are: We can ignore it – that’s an option. Or, we can take it as a factual description of God – that’s another option. Neither is particularly appealing.

Another option is to ignore the details found in Numbers 21 and rather go straight to John 3 where Jesus takes this story and applies it to himself. But that too, on the surface raises some problematic questions. One is that it completely ignores that Numbers speaks of God causing death. Another is that the snake and Jesus appear equated to one another.

Yet another option is to read it strictly as something that happened in the past with no bearing upon our present-day view of God and on our lives. There is value in this method. For example, the Hebrews – the Israelites – were a strict monotheist, where the only heavenly power was YHWH. In a setting where all events, particularly unexplainable ones, were attributable to a deity, the Israelites had no choice other than to attribute both good and evil to YHWH. The other nations and peoples had multiple gods and spirits who could be responsible for a subset of acts, but the Israelites did not. It was only late in Hebrew history, perhaps as late as after the Jewish exile, in which the concept of a devil or Satan first appears in concrete form.

imageBut what about the serpent in Genesis that caused the Fall of Adam and Eve? Good question. In ancient mythologies, serpents were ambiguous creatures. They could be both good and evil, a bringer of life as well as a source of death, they could be wise but also cunning. Even during Jesus’ time, the “good” aspects of serpents were recognized, with him making a statement, “Be wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.” In later times including ours, the symbol of the medical profession is that of a serpent wrapped around a pole. The point here is that the serpent found in Genesis 3, as it would have been seen from the ancients’ eyes, could not be considered unambiguously evil and the connection with Satan certainly was not present. It was only in the Christian era that the connection was finally made as fact.

But I noticed something interesting when I re-read the story of the Fall in conjunction with the story of the attack of the serpents in Numbers. They seem to have a number of characteristics of being parallel accounts. Genesis tells the story from a broad perspective that includes all humankind. The Numbers account reads like a similar story, but told in a context specific to the Israelites.

The Fall, Revisited

In our modernist, individualistic, Western minds, Adam and Eve represent two individuals. But they are actually archetypes, or symbols that represent the beginnings of humankind. They may have been individuals, but that is not the point of the Genesis account. The points of the Genesis account is that humankind is responsible for their own troubles, because they sought to take control of their own destinies. To us it doesn’t seem fair that the decisions of individuals so long ago affect us today. But this wouldn’t have troubled the original tellers and readers of Genesis because all humankind continue to succumb to the desire to be in control of themselves.

Likewise the story of the Israelites complaining in the wilderness is a story about them wanting to wrest control away from God. They were tired of the provisions from God – the manna. Not only tired, but they detested it; they called it worthless. They wanted to return to Egypt, the thing that was forbidden to them. This is similar to Adam and Eve rejecting their God-given food and desiring the one thing that was prohibited to them. Notice too, that both stories revolve around what God has given to the people for their food.

As in the Genesis story, was it literally everyone that complained and asked to return to Egypt? Perhaps, but even if not, in the collectivist, group culture of the ancients, the idea that a select few’s actions negatively impact the entire tribe or nation was not a problematic concept. We see this concept illustrated many times in the Old Testament – e.g., Achan’s sin at Jericho, David’s sin in taking a census. This is similar to the idea that Adam and Eve’s sin infected all humankind for all history.

imageWhat happens when the people decide that they no longer want God’s directions and provisions? They encounter serpents. In both cases the results of their encounters are given as death. In the Genesis account, physical death is not immediate, but their ultimate destiny becomes certain. In the Numbers account, physical death comes swiftly for those bitten by the vipers.

In both cases life is forfeited and there is no way back. The curse of death falls and envelops humankind and the Israelites.

God Intervenes

However, God’s love compels him to reverse the curse.

The details are different in each story. In Genesis, it is God who takes the initiative. In Numbers, it is the people who ask Moses to intervene with God on their behalf. But in both cases, it is God who provides the means to break and reverse the curse of death. And in both cases, just as the curse was brought on by a serpent, the curse will be broken through a serpent.

In Genesis, God curses the serpent. Its status will be lower than that of all the other creatures. God also describes how humankind will continue to struggle against sin and its effects, but gives hope by giving them the possibility of defending themselves against the curse of sin and death. This is the most appropriate reading of Genesis 3:14-15. The idea that the serpent represents the devil and the striking of the serpent’s head represents Christ’s defeat over Satan, is a late interpretation; one that is not present in the text of Genesis. In fact, the word “crush” so often seen in translations is not in the text; rather the word is “strike” or “bruise” in both lines of 3:15b – hardly a fatal blow. So at this point, Adam and Eve are not given a prophetic vision into the future destruction of evil, but are given a picture of an ongoing battle between humankind and the curse. They are given enough hope so that they can continue on with their immediate lives.

imageLikewise in the wilderness, the Israelites receive a hope of reversal of their curse of death. But the curse itself is not removed – the vipers remain to trouble them. God commands Moses to create a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and raise it up so that anyone bitten by a viper can look upon it and have the curse reversed. This is almost a magical action because people of this time believed that in some cases a representation of their problem could be the cure or solution. It shows how God is willing to accommodate misunderstandings that people have, in order to be merciful.

It is interesting that the word that is often translated as serpent in Number 21:8 is literally, seraph, meaning “fiery” and a word that is found elsewhere (Isaiah 6) in the Old Testament to represent an angelic being. Perhaps it isn’t coincidence that seraph appears in Numbers and cherubim (kerub), which can be translated “winged creatures wielding flaming swords” (CEB) appears in Genesis 3:24.

In both cases then, the curse falls upon the people but God intervenes to make a way to reverse the curse and bring hope. But will the curse always remain with humankind and with the Israelites?

Jesus becomes the curse to destroy it forever

imageI think that what I discussed so far is the appropriate context in which to finally understand Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus that is found in John 3:10-15 and Paul’s exposition found in Galatians 3:10-13.

John 3:10 "Jesus answered, "You are a teacher of Israel and you don't know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don't receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don't believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. (CEB)

Galatians 3:10 All those who rely on the works of the Law are under a curse, because it is written, Everyone is cursed who does not keep on doing all the things that have been written in the Law scroll. [Deut. 27:26] 11 But since no one is made righteous by the Law as far as God is concerned, it is clear that the righteous one will live on the basis of faith. [Hab. 2:4] 12 The Law isn't based on faith; rather, the one doing these things will live by them. [Lev. 18:5] 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—because it is written, Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed. [Deut. 21:23] (CEB)

Just as Adam and Eve are archetypes that represent the entirety of humankind, Jesus is the new archetype that represents all of humankind. It is, in this sense that Jesus Christ is our substitute. Jesus did not go to the cross to satisfy some kind of God’s wrath or to intervene in some supposed penalty imposed by God. Rather, Jesus willingly took upon himself all that the curse of sin and death represents, and destroyed it by becoming the archetypal curse itself and taking it into the realm of death. Through his resurrection, Jesus Christ demonstrated that the power of sin and death would remain in the grave, and that the power of love and sacrifice survives. This power of love is the power to restore and redeem all humankind from the curse that has infected them.

Thus we can see now how it is appropriate that Jesus represents himself as a serpent. The serpent represents the curse, and Jesus becomes the curse. In physics when matter and antimatter collide, both particles are annihilated and great energy is released. When Jesus, the source of life, took upon himself the curse, the very opposite of who he is, could a similar thing have happened? Both the man Jesus and the curse of death, as they were before, are annihilated and no longer exist. In its place a new archetypal man, Jesus Christ, is resurrected with the unlimited energy to restore, heal, and re-create all who come to him and trust him. (The details of the metaphor aren’t perfect, but I hope the illustration suffices.)

Summary: We are Part of the New Creation

I think 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 provides a fitting summary and conclusion.

2 Corinthians 5:14 The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died. 15 He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.

16 So then, from this point on we won't recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn't how we know him now. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!

18 All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people's sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.

20 So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ's representatives, "Be reconciled to God!" 21 God caused the one who didn't know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. (CEB)

imageWe are no longer captives to the curse of sin and death. We are part of the new creation. We have this message to spread to the world: that God’s love compelled him to take sin and death upon himself so that all humankind could be rescued from it. If God is like that, who or what do we have to fear? What is stopping you from trusting God and being reconciled to him?

Let us pray…

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Book Review: Disarming Scripture

Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus DidDisarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did by Derek Flood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Unquestioning obedience, or faithful questioning? Which hermeneutic a reader of the Bible uses can either lead to violence or love.

The above is, in a nutshell, the thesis of this book by Derek Flood. Christians have frequently struggled with the amount of violence in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, though there is still plenty to be troubled about in the New Testament. Two common options for dealing with these is to skip it altogether (common in liberal Christianity); or, justify violence and maintain it is still applicable today (conservative and fundamentalist Christianity).

Derek proposes a third option: to accept it as reality of how the culture and the times saw God and violence, but to question if it is really ever was representative of God's ways. Ask the question, how does the text fit into the overall trajectory of the Bible which culminates with the command for enemy-love that Jesus gives? This is the hermeneutic of faithful questioning that Derek proposes as the most appropriate way to read the Bible. He suggests that this is how Progressive Christians ought to read it.

Derek highlights some of the most problematic passages in both the Old and New Testaments to argue his case. He shows how the Hebrews and Jews did not have issues with conflicting views of God in scripture, but rather used them as springboards to argue and dialog about the nature of God; that for them, scripture is not the final authority, but a tool to lead them to greater understanding. Derek shows how Jesus and Paul used scripture in this way: not as the final say, but as starting points; and that they had no difficulties in intentionally changing or omitting portions of texts in their interpretations.

Derek also discusses the common arguments raised by inerrantists, infallibists, and literalists (i.e., conservative and fundamentalist Christians) against this kind of hermeneutic. His key argument is that Jesus spoke about leaving the Holy Spirit to guide future Christians into greater truth. His next argument is a corollary: that Paul writes about how "we have the mind of Christ" and because of that, no static text can be the final authority. Inspiration is found in the act of reading; not inherently in the words.

Derek's conclusion is that in order to defend the authority of a static text, force and violence must eventually be used. When a person or a religious group sees the Bible in this way, they must defend their "rightness" and the violence found in the Bible is justification for their means. In order to disarm violence and embrace enemy-love taught by Jesus, this static reading of the text must be abandoned to a more robust and flexible hermeneutic.

This book will appeal to many Progressive Christians and questioning believers. It provides a way out of the rigidness of traditional ways of reading and interpreting scripture while still maintaining faithfulness (Derek would say it is more faithful ) to God and his inspiration of scripture. This book will help liberal Christians take another look at the problematic parts of the Bible. And hopefully for those who hold to a conservative position on scripture, it will at least help explain how Progressives can claim faithfulness while rejecting inerrancy, infallibility, and literalism.

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Sunday, March 08, 2015

Finding Jesus (TV) – Relics of John the Baptist (ep. 2/6)

imageProphets were common in first century Judaism. John the Baptist is the kind of fire-brand, judgment-preaching prophet in the pattern of Old Testament prophets that would have aroused the curiosity and appeal of the people of his time. And in many ways he might be the kind of preacher that some segments of Christianity today might also revere. During his life, John was probably far more popular and recognized than Jesus. But he didn't seek the limelight; he went to the margins and spoke from there.
Not too many years into the beginnings of Christianity, the remains of John the Baptist were believed to have spread around the region. People wanted tangible connections to their origins, and these bone fragments were one such means. There are far too many such reports for most of them to be possibly genuine. But what we can learn from them is the story of the spread of Christianity.
One such relic was discovered in Bulgaria underneath a church dedicated to John the Baptist. Upon testing the remains, it was discovered that it did indeed come from a Middle Eastern man dated to the first part of the first century. If genuine, it could be a biological connection to Jesus. (Cue scenes and readings from Luke.)
Science can determine whether any of the scattered relics of John the Baptist are from a single individual.
Historical interpretation shows that Jesus came to John, and that Jesus' ministry began within John's framework. There is no evidence for or against that John and Jesus met previous to his baptism. (Cue scenes and readings of baptism from the gospels.) How can the baptized become greater than the baptizer? This is one of the major issues for which the gospels attempt to provide an answer. Eventually Jesus goes off on his own and it is his ministry that survives.
Jesus and the wilderness temptation. (Cue scenes and readings of the temptations.) The program uses the order from Luke. The interviewee for this segment provides some personal speculations that seems irrelevant.
The program interprets Jesus' baptism as giving John the Baptist new courage to speak out against sin, specifically against Herod Antipas. Explanation given of why Herod's relationship with Herodias was particularly offensive to the Jews. John's actions are seen as political sedition and treason, eventually leading to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution.
Imprisonment does not silence John. But now he has time to really ponder Jesus and his movement. If Jesus is on the trajectory that John prophesied about the Messiah, then John's work has not been in vain. Jesus' response gives hope to John – oppression will be overcome.
The problem between John and Herod/Herodias is that of honor. John has shamed them. And Herodias in particular has a score to settle, to regain her honor. (Cue "death banquet" scene and reading from Mark.) John the Baptist's execution stands as a warning to all who would dare confront the established powers of the world.
The finger kept in Kansas City, MO does not date to the first century. It is much younger. There are over 200 known relics of John. Perhaps matches will be found as they continue to be tested.
John the Baptist is a prototype for Jesus' ministry: a catalyst for change, calls for repentance, confronting the established powers, martyrdom. A key difference: Jesus movement intentionally appeals to Gentiles, thereby allowing it to survive and continue.
Dramatized interpretations from the Bible are intertwined with modern settings of the search and testing of relics.
This episode had much less to do with looking at the relics and far more with understanding the person of John and how Jesus might have been influenced by him. It used quite a number of passages from the Bible and included extensive dramatizations of the stories. As with any interpretations of scripture, there are opinions that not all may share. Overall, however, I thought the program remained historically and scripturally sound.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Book Review: How to Bake Pi

How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of MathematicsHow to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics by Eugenia Cheng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How to Bake Pi by Eugenia Cheng is a fascinating look at mathematics from an atypical perspective. In this work Eugenia shows how math is far larger, varied, and more encompassing than merely solving equations. She introduces each of her chapters with a "recipe" involving real food as an analogy to illustrate the points she makes.

In the early part of the book Eugenia describes how many people find math difficult and drop away at different stages. For some, arithmetic is hard. For other algebra or geometry is where they drop away. For some it might be trigonometry. For others calculus. And so on.

In my own personal experience, I found that I could not get past the plateau of calculus. This book finally gave me insight into why: up to calculus, math was still primarily about solving problems/equations and finding the "right" answer. Starting with calculus and going further into advance mathematics, problem-solving and finding the "right" answer is no longer the goal. My belief was that math was about solving problems, and so calculus increasingly made little sense in my mind. Perhaps if I had known what this book describes about math, I may have had a chance to get past the wall of calculus.

The first part of the book discusses abstractions and generalizations as one of the key goals of math. The second part of the book discusses Eugenia's field of specialty: Category Theory, and how the purpose of this meta-math (or math of math) is to simply math.

The final chapter brings all the earlier pages together as Eugenia summarizes the knowledge and makes a case to have her readers come away with the belief that math isn't hard. She does so by applying in her literary work the principles she discusses in this very chapter: she uses her discussions to bridge the knowledge and belief through understanding. So in the end I find that her math "principles" apply to not just math, but to cooking and to writing.

What is contained in this book is probably of most interest to someone familiar with high school math and onward. Many of the examples given assume a basic knowledge of algebra and geometry.

Eugenia alludes to math education a number of times in her book. Although this is not a book about math education, I believe that the reader can discover a vision for math education that she would like her readers to leave with. I think that this book will be an interesting and helpful volume for aspiring teachers and math educators, from elementary through high school and even into higher ed.

(This review is based on ARC supplied by the publisher through NetGalley.)

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Sunday, March 01, 2015

Finding Jesus (TV) – The Shroud of Turin (ep. 1/6)

This year, 2015, we get a series on Jesus from CNN during this Lenten and Easter season. The series looks for Jesus in the handful of artifacts that claim to be connected to Jesus in one way or another. In the start to the series the Shroud of Turin is featured.
The episode examines the shroud and compares it to the accounts of his suffering, crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection. The show attempts to depict how the various markings on the shroud correspond to descriptions in the gospel accounts. No counterevidence or counterarguments are presented during this part of the program. The question that comes to my mind is, are the researchers fitting the evidence to the account, seeing what they want to see?
Around the 43 minute mark it is finally revealed that the shroud fails the dating test. It cannot be the burial shroud of Jesus; it is a forgery. The program discusses the forgery of artifacts during the Middle Ages.
Another theory is proposed: that the shroud is the earliest example of photography. Camera obscura is discussed. The dating of this and the shroud correspond. The chemical process was known at that time. Urea in urine would have been used to remove the silver sulphate. When the process is reproduced today, the image formed is strikingly similar to what is seen on the shroud. It would then be easy to add blood by panting onto the linen. The main problem with this theory is that there are no other extent examples of this technique from the same period.
There is another artifact that potentially argues for the authenticity of the shroud: the face cloth claimed to have covered Jesus' face. The organic remnants on the cloth seem to evidence its authenticity.
I found this first episode far more compelling, believable, and worthwhile than similar series that I saw broadcast on the History and H2 channels. Most of the individuals given air time seem to be respectable scholars, rather than in the earlier series where the scholars seemed to be outnumbered by popular authors and journalists. Unlike, say The Bible series on the History channel, this episode remained quite close to the biblical text when it depicted scenes from the Bible.
The program itself takes the discussion and debate seriously. The concluding few minutes present voices from both sides, and suggest spiritual and devotional elements that these artifacts can lead people toward.