Ecce Homo: Take 99

It had been a rough night.  Everyone had possessed an opinion about what should be done, with few of the opinions agreeing.  Now he was ready to pass judgment in the harsh glare of the early morning light, sleepless and having consumed too much wine.  It had been hard to reach a decision but he had reached it.  Why did he have the oddest feeling that he had already done this before?

“Release the prisoner.  He has committed no offense against the laws of Rome.  Such is the judgment of the Senate and the People of Rome.”

Pilate glanced over at the accused.  He expected to see relief and joy.  Instead, in the man’s face Pilate read infinite sadness, with perhaps a touch of irritation.  Then everything went dark.

“Procurator, Caiaphas is outside with a prisoner.”, said his aide Tribune Marcellus.

Pilate grimaced.  “Just what this gods’ forsaken day needs.”  He had more than half a mind to tell Caiaphas to get lost.  That is what he decided to do.  “Marcellus, tell the old rat I am occupied and I will remain occupied until next week.  If he really wants to see me, he can wait that long.”

Then everything went dark.

“Procurator, Caiaphas is outside with a prisoner.”, said his aide Tribune Marcellus.  Pilate sighed, Yes and he has that young rabble rousing carpenter from Nazareth with him.  My spies have earned their pay at the Temple this week.  Pilate heard Caiaphas out and refused to judge the case.  He ordered Yeshua to be scourged and expelled from Jerusalem.  Whatever game Caiaphas was playing, Pilate was not going to take part.  Then everything went dark.

Procurator, Caiaphas is outside with a prisoner.”, said his aide Tribune Marcellus.  Pilate heard Caiaphas and then said that this seemed to be a quarrel over the religion of the Jews.  He announced that as this was the case, Caiaphas could execute Yeshua by stoning if he wished, but Rome was not going to be  involved.  Then everything went dark.

“Procurator, Caiaphas is outside with a prisoner.”, said his aide Tribune Marcellus.  Pilate listened to Caiaphas and took the case under advisement.  Three weeks later, after Jerusalem had calmed down, Pilate ordered the release of Yeshua, Pilate’s wife asking this of him after having a series of dreams involving Yeshua.  Then everything went dark.

“Procurator, Joseph of Arimathea is outside.”, said his aide Tribune Marcellus.  Joseph knew the rich merchant slightly but was only too happy to receive a substantial bribe from him to release the carpenter rabbi, Yeshua, from the clutches of Caiaphas.  Then everything went dark.

“Procurator, Caiaphas is outside with a prisoner.”, said his aide Tribune Marcellus.   Pilate heard Caiaphas present his case, questioned Jesus, and the next day ordered Yeshua to be crucified.  The sentence was not carried out when the Zealots of Barabbas decided to liberate the fellow prisoner of their released leader.  Then everything went dark.

************************************

Pilate condemned Yeshua to be crucified.  This whole business had been mysterious and wearisome to Pilate, who felt as if he were an actor reading lines he had read many times before.  However, the oddest moment was when he glanced at the face of Yeshua.  The usual pain and anguish of a man just condemned to a gruesome death was slightly there, but Pilate had never seen before the faintest hint of a smile.

Published in: on April 1, 2021 at 5:30 pm  Comments Off on Ecce Homo: Take 99  
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One Solitary Life

All the armies that have ever marched

All the navies that have ever sailed

All the parliaments that have ever sat

All the kings that ever reigned put together

  Have not affected the life of mankind on earth

As powerfully as that one solitary life

From One Solitary Life

I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.

H. G. Wells (more…)

Published in: on December 25, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on One Solitary Life  
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George Washington and the Divine Author of Our Blessed Religion

In 1783 the Revolutionary War was coming to a close, Washington now waiting for negotiations to conclude and the British to evacuate New York.  On June 8, 1783 he sent a circular letter out to the states discussing his thoughts on the importance of the states remaining united, paying war debts, taking care  of the soldiers who were wounded in the war and the establishment of a peace time military and the regulation of the militia.  It is an interesting document and may be read here.

Washington ends the letter with this striking passage:

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation. (more…)

Published in: on December 24, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on George Washington and the Divine Author of Our Blessed Religion  
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Easter and History

 

I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.

H.G. Wells

How many movements throughout the history of Man have flourished briefly and then vanished into everlasting oblivion, forgotten entirely by History or relegated to the briefest of footnotes?  From a human standpoint that was clearly the fate of the movement started by the carpenter/rabbi from Galilee following His death on a cross.  His followers had scattered and went into hiding at His arrest.  He was denied by the mob, their choosing a bandit and murderer over Him.  Condemned by the foreigners occupying His country, His people observed His death by mocking Him.  The idea that He had founded a “Church” that would spread around the globe, altering all of human history, and causing Him to be worshiped as God by billions of people would have struck any neutral observer as mad ravings.  Yet that is precisely what happened. (more…)

Published in: on April 21, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Easter and History  
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Triumph of the Cross

In Hoc Signo Vinces

(This is my regular post for Palm Sunday which I repost each year.  Have a happy and blessed Palm Sunday and Holy Week.)

9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion, shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem: BEHOLD THY KING will come to thee, the just and saviour: he is poor, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass. 10 And I will destroy the chariot out of Ephraim, and the horse out of Jerusalem, and the bow for war shall be broken: and he shall speak peace to the Gentiles, and his power shall be from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the end of the earth.

Thus did the prophet Zechariah, writing half a millennium before, predict the entry of Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  How many such glorious entrances into cities have there been over the ages?  Every civilization I am aware of has such ceremonies, either parades in peace time or entrances of conquest or liberation in war time.  The Romans turned this into an art form with their triumphs, with the reminder of the slave to the imperator of  fleeting human mortality: “Respice post te, hominem memento te”.

Few such triumphs have turned into utter disaster as quickly as that of Jesus:  Jerusalem at His feet on Sunday, and Christ dead on a Roman Cross before the sun had set on Friday.  Small wonder that no contemporary historian or chronicler at the time took note.  However some sort of official report probably was filed after the crucifixion.  Writing circa 116 AD, and relying heavily on official records for his history, in regard to the great fire at Rome under Emperor Nero Tacitus states:

“15.44.2. But, despite kindly influence, despite the leader’s generous handouts, despite appeasing the gods, the scandal did not subside, rather the blaze came to be believed to be an official act. So, in order to quash the rumour, Nero blamed it on, and applied the cruelest punishments to, those sinners, whom ordinary people call Christians, hating them for their shameful behaviour. 15.44.3. The originator of this name, Christ, was sentenced to torture by Procurator Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius, but although checked for a moment, the deadly cult erupted again, not just in Judaea, the source of its evil, but even in Rome, where all the sins and scandals of the world gather and are glorified.”

Tacitus, clearly hostile to the Christians, points his finger at one of the great mysteries of history.  In human terms the Jesus movement was nipped in the bud at its inception.  Yet in less than three centuries the Roman emperor bowed before the cross.  The triumph of Palm Sunday led only to disaster, and the humiliation and death of the cross led to triumph in eternity and here on Earth.

For we Catholics, and for all other Christians, no explanation of this paradoxical outcome is needed.  However there is much here to ponder for non-believers and non-Christians.  In purely human terms the followers of Christ had no chance to accomplish anything:  no powerful supporters, no homeland embracing their faith, cultures, both Jewish and Gentile, which were hostile to the preaching of the Gospels, other religions which were well-established, the list of disadvantages could go on at considerable length.  We take the victory of Christianity for granted because it happened.  We forget how very improbable such a victory was. Even more improbable is that what began on Palm Sunday, the triumph of Jesus, has continued till today in spite of all challenges that two thousand years of human folly could cast up.  How very peculiar in mortal terms!

Let us give the last word to the patron saint of paradox G. K. Chesterton: (more…)

Published in: on April 14, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Triumph of the Cross  
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Christ and History

(I originally posted this at The American Catholic and I thought the history mavens of Almost Chosen People might enjoy it.)

I’ll tell you what stands between us and the Greeks.  Two thousand years of human suffering stands between us! Christ on His Cross stands between us!

Michelangelo, Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

Popular historian Tom Holland, whose work I have admired, writes how his study of history led him back to Christianity:

By the time I came to read Edward Gibbon and the other great writers of the Enlightenment, I was more than ready to accept their interpretation of history: that the triumph of Christianity had ushered in an “age of superstition and credulity”, and that modernity was founded on the dusting down of long-forgotten classical values. My childhood instinct to think of the biblical God as the po-faced enemy of liberty and fun was rationalised. The defeat of paganism had ushered in the reign of Nobodaddy, and of all the crusaders, inquisitors and black-hatted puritans who had served as his acolytes. Colour and excitement had been drained from the world. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean,” Swinburne wrote, echoing the apocryphal lament of Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome. “The world has grown grey from thy breath.” Instinctively, I agreed.

So, perhaps it was no surprise that I should have continued to cherish classical antiquity as the period that most stirred and inspired me. When I came to write my first work of history, Rubicon, I chose a subject that had been particularly close to the hearts of the philosophes: the age of Cicero. The theme of my second, Persian Fire, was one that even in the 21st century was serving Hollywood, as it had served Montaigne and Byron, as an archetype of the triumph of liberty over despotism: the Persian invasions of Greece.

The years I spent writing these studies of the classical world – living intimately in the company of Leonidas and of Julius Caesar, of the hoplites who had died at Thermopylae and of the legionaries who had triumphed at Alesia – only confirmed me in my fascination: for Sparta and Rome, even when subjected to the minutest historical inquiry, did not cease to seem possessed of the qualities of an apex predator. They continued to stalk my imaginings as they had always done – like a tyrannosaur.

Yet giant carnivores, however wondrous, are by their nature terrifying. The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.

“Every sensible man,” Voltaire wrote, “every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.” Rather than acknowledge that his ethical principles might owe anything to Christianity, he preferred to derive them from a range of other sources – not just classical literature, but Chinese philosophy and his own powers of reason. Yet Voltaire, in his concern for the weak and oppressed, was marked more enduringly by the stamp of biblical ethics than he cared to admit. His defiance of the Christian God, in a paradox that was certainly not unique to him, drew on motivations that were, in part at least, recognisably Christian.

“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.

Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian. (more…)

Published in: on September 18, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments (5)  
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Christ as the Greatest Black Swan: Explaining the Unexplainable

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The fourth and final part of our Advent look at Jesus as the greatest Black Swan event in human history.  Go here to read part one, here to read part two and here to read part three.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his 2007 book The Black Swan, took a look at the impact of events in history for which our prior experiences give us no inkling.  Taleb states three requirements for a Black Swan Event:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

The all important question about Christ is the one He asked.  Who do you say that I am?  In trying to make sense of Christ and his ever present impact upon this world, that is the question that is ever addressed.

A popular answer among some atheists is that Christ never existed.  This has always been a minority position since the evidence for the historicity of Christ is so overwhelming, especially for a figure who lived in obscurity.  Written accounts by His followers were drafted within decades after His death.  Non-Christian accounts, notably Tacitus, mention Christ.  His followers in Rome are persecuted within thirty years after His death.  Attempts to get around all this involve large amounts of conspiracy theories, ignoring inconvenient facts and academic hand-waving.  Regarding Christ as a myth may satisfy a semi-educated atheist, but it simply is not an intellectually honest position. (more…)

Published in: on December 20, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Christ as the Greatest Black Swan: Explaining the Unexplainable  
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Christ as the Greatest Black Swan: At the Center of History

quote-alexander-caesar-charlemagne-and-myself-founded-empires-but-what-foundation-did-we-rest-the-napoleon-bonaparte-338750

“I am a historian, I am not a believer.  But I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history.  Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.”

H.G. Wells

The third part of our Advent look at Jesus as the greatest Black Swan event in human history.  Go here to read part one and here to read part two.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his 2007 book The Black Swan, took a look at the impact of events in history for which our prior experiences give us no inkling.  Taleb states three requirements for a Black Swan Event:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

“Extreme impact” is such an understatement if used in reference to the impact of the coming of Christ on the History of Man.  Such an outcome would have been considered impossible judging strictly from the facts of His life.  A brief three year preaching ministry in a backwater of the Roman Empire, born a member of a conquered and widely despised people.  Opposed from the start by the leaders of His people and ignored by the Roman occupiers, His movement was strangled at its inception by His death on the Cross.  All but one of His Apostles fled from Him in panic, desperate to deny any connection with a clearly doomed cause.  Few lives seemed more complete a failure than did that of Christ when His body was deposited in a borrowed tomb.  His destiny seemed clear:  to be forgotten by History, not even a footnote.  Then came the Resurrection, His appearances after the Crucifixion, and his movement experienced a glorious dawn.

However, the odds against this movement accomplishing anything of note remained quite daunting.  No powerful supporters; no homeland embracing their faith;  cultures, both Jewish and Gentile, which were hostile to the preaching of the Gospel;  countless other religions which were well-established and intolerant of a new rival;  disputes quickly arising to split the movement, and the list of handicaps for these Christians as they were soon called was a lengthy one. (more…)

Published in: on December 13, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Christ as the Greatest Black Swan: At the Center of History  
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Christ the Greatest Black Swan: The Unexpected Expected Messiah

Delphic-sibyl

The second part of our Advent look at Jesus as the greatest Black Swan event in human history.  Go here to read part one.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his 2007 book The Black Swan, took a look at the impact of events in history for which our prior experiences give us no inkling.  Taleb states three requirements for a Black Swan Event:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

In regard to the first test of a Black Swan event, was the coming of Jesus unexpected?  The Old Testament is studded with texts that predict the coming of the Messiah.  Go here, here, here ,here, here, here, here, here , here here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here,   here, and here to read a handful of them.  These messianic interpretations were not merely Christians reading back into Scripture references to Christ.  For centuries before Christ Jews had debated and argued about whether a Messiah sent by God was coming and what he would be like if he came.  Greatly simplifying a very complex historical debate, most Jews who believed in a Messiah expected a scion of the House of David who would re-establish, with the help of God, the Jews as a great people ruling themselves.  A minority of Jews thought the Messiah might be humble and meek, the “suffering servant” of Messiah, while most Jews regarded such passages as a prophetic reference to the weak state of the Jewish nation.  A handful of Jews, some of the Essenes, believed that the Messiah had come about a century to a century and a half before the Christian Era and would come again.

Intriguingly some Romans believed about the time of Christ that some great change was about to enter the world.  One of the odder stories in the history of Rome is the purported purchase by the last Roman King Tarquinus Superbus.  Sybil means prophetess in Greek.  Lines of women prophets established themselves at various locations throughout the Greek world and were frequently consulted during times of crisis.  As the story goes, the Cumaean Sybil, located near Naples, offered to Superbus nine books of prophecies of the history of Rome written in Greek hexameters at an exorbitant price.  When he declined the offer she burned three of the books and repeated her offer.  The King declining again she burned three more books at which the King met her price for the final three books.  God alone knows what grains of truth are in this story.  What is quite historical is that the Roman Senate did have Sybilline Books, or rather scrolls, of prophecies, closely guarded by the Roman state and consulted in times of peril as to the religious observances that must be undertaken to avert the peril.  Kept in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol the original books were lost when the temple burned in 83 BC.  The Senate rounded up prophecies from other Sybils to replace them, and the new Sybilline books were placed in the restored temple to Jupiter.  Consul Flavius Stilicho ordered these books burned in 408 AD as they were being used by adversaries of the government. (more…)

Published in: on December 6, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Christ the Greatest Black Swan: The Unexpected Expected Messiah  
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Jesus as the Greatest of Black Swan Events

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDbuJtAiABA

rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno

Juvenal

(I am posting this today at The American Catholic, and I thought the history mavens of Almost Chosen People might also like it.)

The completely unexpected in history has always fascinated me.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his 2007 book The Black Swan, took a look at the impact of events in history for which our prior experiences give us no inkling.  Taleb states three requirements for a Black Swan Event:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

Unlike Mr. Taleb I think true Black Swan events, based upon the criteria he sets forth, are rather rare in the history of mankind.  Normally they fall down on the first element.  Taleb, for example, views the fall of the Soviet empire as a Black Swan occurrence.  I disagree in that the dissolution of the great colonial empires of the West had been a salient feature of the post World War II world.  Totalitarian controls allowed the Soviet Union to delay the process, but once the reins were loosened, and the threat of mass violence was no longer on the table, the dissolution came rapidly.

The Coming of Christ into this world is the greatest example of a Black Swan Event that I can think of, and over the remainder of this Advent we will see how looking at the Incarnation through this mental prism can give us a new appreciation of how unlikely, and startling, the impact of Christ on History has been.

Before we do this, let us take a moment to recall to mind the world into which Christ was born. (more…)

Published in: on November 29, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Jesus as the Greatest of Black Swan Events  
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