At the threshold of Passion Week, I present an excerpt from an archaeological article written in 1985 by Vassilios Tzaferis. He reported on the first ever finding of the remains of a victim of crucifixion, although of course, there is a great deal of written evidence that the practice of crucifixion was by no means uncommon in the ancient world. Here he presents a brief history of Crucifixion. I warn you, some of it is not very pleasant reading.
Many people erroneously assume that crucifixion was a Roman invention. In fact, Assyrians, Phoenicians and Persians all practiced crucifixion during the first millennium B.C. Crucifixion was introduced in the west from these eastern cultures; it was used only rarely on the Greek mainland, but Greeks in Sicily and southern Italy used it more frequently, probably as a result of their closer contact with Phoenicians and Carthaginians.
During the Hellenistic period, crucifixion became more popular among the Hellenized population of the east. After Alexander died in 323 B.C., crucifixion was frequently employed both by the Seleucids (the rulers of the Syrian half of Alexander’s kingdom) and by the Ptolemies (the rulers of the Egyptian half). Among the Jews crucifixion was an anathema. (See Deuteronomy 21:22–23: “If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake, you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God: you shall not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.”)
The traditional method of execution among Jews was stoning. Nevertheless, crucifixion was occasionally employed by Jewish tyrants during the Hasmonean period. According to Josephus, Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Jews on a single day during the revolt against the census of 7 A.D. At the end of the first century B.C., the Romans adopted crucifixion as an official punishment for non-Romans for certain legally limited transgressions. Continue reading “Biography of Crucifixion”
There are certain core principles at the heart of Christian life. There is a Latin term that summarises their importance: “sine qua non” or “without this, it is not”. Without living these principles, a person is simply not a Christian.
The calling of Levi (St Matthew) to be a Disciple of Christ is an example of one of those principles. It illustrates the kind of trusting surrender without which no one can truly be called a Christian. Others, more advanced in religious life, like the rich young man (Mark ch.10) failed in this principle and could not follow Jesus. This brought sadness to His heart.
How much did Levi know about Jesus when he accepted His invitation? Had Jesus ‘proved’ Himself to Levi by healing him or working a miracle for him? Neither the gospels nor Church tradition suggest any such thing. The mystery of Levi’s immediate, unquestioning obedience to what amounts to a stranger is the mystery of the human spirit’s surrender to Christ. It is not based on pure logic and appears even to be irrational. It does not grow out of experience alone, nor does it result from the cajoling of others.
Recently I’ve been delving into alleged “mistakes” in the Bible. There is a lot to say on this subject, but I’d like today just to throw a few thoughts into the ring.
In considering whether a Bible passage has made a “mistake”, it is crucial to understand what we mean exactly by “mistake”. Language is used in so many different ways, and it is by no means exact in the same sense that the language of mathematics may be said to be exact.
If I propose, for example, that E=mc2, I am proposing something that is quite unambiguous. I have defined exactly what I mean by each of the symbols. For example, I have defined mass as being that particular property of a thing that allows it to be acted upon by forces like gravity. I would have a clear distinction in my mind between the concepts of mass and weight, the weight being of course the force exerted by gravity on the mass: proportional to it, but not identical to it. I would also know exactly what the ‘square’ symbol means – to multiply the preceding pronumeral by itself, to do so once and only once. I know that it means that the ‘c’ is squared, but not the adjacent ‘m’, according to a convention where in the absence of brackets, you square only the one pronumeral. And so on; it is a brief yet incredibly precise statement that leaves no room for misinterpretation, given modern mathematical conventions.
But how precise is a sentence like “And she brought forth her firstborn Son” Luke 2:7? What does the language tell us, and what does it leave open to interpretation? There are of course some implications that no one would object to, such as:
I recently came across an interesting little fact. Before I share it with you, I have to tell you that although I love anything mathematical, I am not generally a great fan of Biblical numerology; the study of mathematical patterns in the text of the Bible. However, this one is interesting…
In the Gospel accounts of the Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus by St John the Baptist, the original Greek word used for the dove that appeared above Him is “PERISTERAN”. Now the evangelists tell us that this apparition of a dove was actually a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
You may be aware that in written Greek (the original language of the New Testament), numbers do not have their own unique symbols, but are represented by the letters of the alphabet. The same is true of Coptic. Thus alpha, the first letter, represents the number one, beta, the second letter, is ‘two’, and so on. Once you get to ten, the next letter is twenty, then thirty, and so on to a hundred, then two hundred etc.
Now it turns out that if you take the numerical values for all the letters that make up the Greek word “PERISTERAN” and add them up, you come to a total of 801. What’s so special about that?
Well, 801 = 800 + 1.
The number 1 written in Greek is the letter alpha, the first letter of the alphabet. Care to guess what letter represents the number 800?
Omega, of course, the last letter of the Greek alphabet. I quote for you two verses from the Book of Revelation and leave you to put the rest together for yourself:
The Father Said:
Rev 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,theBeginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
And the Son said:
Rev 1:11 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,”
Now, I’m talking about the pudgy fellow with the flowing white beard and the red and white suit. I would not be surprised if this jolly old chap were responsible for more people losing their Christian faith over the years than anyone else in history.
It’s not really his fault, poor old fellow. It’s what people do with him. See, grownups will insist on pretending that this preposterous anachronism is real to their little children. The children gobble him up (sometimes literally, if he’s made of chocolate). They eagerly await his advent, full of delicious anticipation at the bounty he will bring them. They live their days in righteousness in fear of his wrath, lest he smite them with an onion in their stocking in the last days. They may even offer to him a sacrifice of milk and cookies. And then on the fateful day of his coming, they rise early to find the bounty he has graced upon them, and which has miraculously appeared over night beneath his twiggy altar. Grownups glow with fuzzy warmth at the sight and continue to feed the lie to their children.
Is it better to see life in complex or simple terms? Should I delve deeply into things, seeking hidden meanings, or should I just accept things at face value?
In my last post I looked at the argument in favour of complexity. Today, a look at the other side…
Simplicity plays a crucial role in the life of the true Christian. When our Lord gives us simple, direct commands, there is not a lot of wiggle room, nor should we be clever and try to find it. An example of this might be the central law of love in Christianity. We are enjoined to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, our neighbours, and even our enemies and those who persecute us: in simple terms, to love every human being in this world.
You can get pretty complicated in addressing the question of how to apply this command, but basically, it boils down to something pretty straightforward: put away your ego, your fear, your dignity and your pride. See how God loves the unlovable, and strive to do the same. When the man asked Jesus “who is my neighbour?”, he was possibly trying to find a way out of loving someone he didn’t want to love by changing the definitions. This is resorting to complexity where it does not belong. This is why attackers of Christianity accuse Christians of being hypocritical. Richard Dawkins is convinced that when Christians say “love thy neighbour”, they mean only the neighbour who belongs to my tribe, my faith, my nationality. From where does he get this ridiculous concept? From Christians who play with the words for their own selfish ends.
Simplicity makes life so much easier, so much more peaceful when we employ it in our dealings with one another. Consider the person who constantly doubts the motives of others, constantly taking offence at others’ words and actions, seeing insults where none are intended or snobbishness where none exists. This person lives in constant anxiety and discontentment. Compare him to one who takes the words and actions of others simply. When someone says, “I didn’t mean it”, he takes them at their word and thinks no more about it. If someone seems to ignore him, he takes no offence but rather anticipates that there is some other unknown reason for the apparent snub (he was tired, he was distracted, he has a tooth ache…) This person lives a life of peace and contentment. He is happy with others because he is happy within himself. A simple heart produces a simple eye, and a simple eye produces a simple heart.
Last time we considered mandlebulbs where simple instructions produced incredibly complex and beautiful forms. But the opposite may be true as well. Sometimes very complicated beginnings boil down to a very simple ending. Consider the famous Theory of Relativity discovered by the famous Albert Einstein, a man who himself was in love with simplicity. Some pretty heavy maths takes a long and circuitous path to boil down to a stunningly simple equation in the end: e = mc2.
In his personal life, Einstein sought simplicity in ways that many would consider eccentric at best, downright insane at worst. For example, he drove his poor wife crazy by insisting upon taking up the scissors and cutting off the cuffs of his shirtsleeves. What purpose do the darn things serve? All they do is get dirty and force you to wash the whole shirt before the rest of it is in need of washing! For similar reasons, he apparently often dispensed with socks. To his mind, unnecessary distractions prevented him from focusing his time and energy on his real goals, his mathematical and physical investigations, so he took the logical course and simplified his life.
Personally, I find much to admire in this approach. Gone are the days when I used to spend ages trying to match up my socks. Of course, they’re all black, but there is black and there is black. There are thicker winter materials and lighter summer ones. There are long, medium and short ones, with elastic and without, and then of course, there are all the stages of fading. You can tell I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. But one day it dawned upon me that this is such a waste of time. Black socks are black socks in the end, and who pays attention to your socks? Matching socks never got anyone into heaven, not so far as I know, anyway. So now I just take any two socks out of the washing basket and slip them on. Simplicity! It feels like being set free from prison! The prison was my own unnecessary perfectionism, vanity and small mindedness. Just don’t look too closely at my feet, next time we meet…
So where does all that leave us? Should we be simple or complex in our approach to life? The answer, I think, is both. There is a time and place for complexity and another for simplicity. There are even times when we should use them together, as we use a hammer and nail together. To know which is to be applied requires wisdom and discernment: gifts that generally are won through hard experience, many mistakes and an open mind.
“Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves”, said our Lord. And yes, it is possible to have both in the same person. I hope these modest reflections may have shed a little light on how this is possible.
Is it better to see life in complex or simple terms? Should I delve deeply into things, seeking hidden meanings, or should I just accept things at face value?
Today, the argument for complexity; although I reserve the right to respond later with another blog on the argument for simplicity.
If our study of nature has taught us anything, it is that nature is richly complex in its structure and function. Even the simplest of seeds can give birth to the most complex of fruits.
Take for example an incredible mathematical concept called the Mandlebrot fractal. In basic terms, a very simple set of rules produces the most incredible patterns in two dimensions. Taken to three dimensions, the results are nothing short of breathtaking (see picture). You can find more at http://www.skytopia.com/project/fractal/mandelbulb.html.
A mandlebulb is just an inanimate shape, but add life, and the complexity skyrockets. Anyone who has studied even basic Biology cannot fail to be impressed by the wealth of chemical and physical processes that constitute even the simplest of living creatures. Their interactions with each other produce a symphony of life – an intricate, movingly subtle interplay between a multitude of parts that virtually cries out the majestic wisdom of God their Creator. No wonder we sing “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” in Psalm 150.
Should our faith, then, be simple or complex? I suspect it really depends on who you are and where you are in your journey of spiritual and intellectual maturity. It would be ridiculous to expound the detailed intricacies of the hypostases of the Holy Trinity to a Sunday School class of five year olds. But by the same token, to limit your explanation of the Holy Trinity to nothing more than “three petals on a flower” to a group of advanced Theology students would be equally ridiculous.
There is a time and place for complexity. If God has created complexity, and if He has given us brains that can understand it, then surely we have a responsibility to do so if we are capable.
Why does this matter? It matters because I have noticed a growing trend among those members of our Church who have been brought up in the western system of education to be deeply dissatisfied with simplistic explanations of our faith. Their minds have been taught to probe and question and doubt in order to get to the truth, and the neat, simple answers of their childhood no longer satisfy them. Sometimes, they are made to feel guilty for even asking the questions, and in the worst cases, the result is that they lose their faith altogether.
I think this is very wrong. Our God is a God of Truth, and surely, the closer we approach Truth, the closer we come to God. I will even dare to say this: if the God I believe in cannot stand up to a genuine search for the Truth, then I should not believe in Him. If God is who we think He is, then a properly conducted and sincere search for the Truth cannot help but lead to Him – we have nothing to fear; there is no line of investigation that does not lead to Him in the end.
If this search for Truth about God and the universe He has created means that sometimes we have to ditch old and simplistic understandings for newer, more complex ones, then so be it. So it is in every aspect of our lives. If the Truth be complex, then so must our understanding of it.
Perhaps a concrete example will help illustrate this rather abstract topic. How are we to understand the Bible? The simplistic approach of our childhood says “We must obey every word the Bible says.” That’s beautiful, and in essence, it is absolutely true. We must indeed follow the instruction of the Bible as faithfully as we possibly can. But what does “obey every word” actually mean? If you delve into it, you will find it is not so simple as it sounds…
“I urge you, brethren – you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints – that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labours with us.” 1Corinthians 16:15,16
If we were to literally obey these words, then we would have to seek out descendents of the household of Stephanas, somehow, after twenty centuries, and then lay ourselves in submission to them. Clearly, that is far too simplistic an interpretation. Most sensible Christians would understand that the thing we need to obey is not the specific instruction given here by St Paul to a specific readership in a specific time and place. It is the underlying universal principle that we should follow. It is not the person of Stephanas we must obey, but those who are faithful in serving the Lord, those who follow Christ faithfully as St Paul did, in any time and place.
But you see, already, we have left the path of simplicity and entered the path of complexity. Another example:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” Matthew 5:29
If we were to follow this command in its most simple interpretation, we would have an awful lot of one eyed Christians. But we don’t. And that’s not through lack of faith or courage: by and large, Christians understand that it is the underlying principle we are required to obey here, rather than the simple and straightforward sense of the command. We take in to account the flowery nature of speech in Middle Eastern society – we as Copts know it very well, for it lives on in Arabic today! We easily see that if there are other ways of avoiding the sin of adultery of the eyes that don’t involve drastic measures, these are preferable. (Of course, there have been exceptions such as St Simeon the Tanner and Origen, but these were specific cases with their own unique circumstances).
Again, we have left the path of simplicity and entered that of complexity. But the danger that most Christians fear once we embark upon the path of complexity is that we might get it wrong. When it comes to interpreting the Bible, who is to say that one interpretation is better than another? What’s to stop anyone and everyone from interpreting it according to their own pre-assumptions and agendas?
And in fact, this happens on a regular basis, anywhere from the cult that sees in the Bible alien civilisations on other planets, to the ever-growing multitude of varieties of Protestantism, to that old favourite Bible verse quoted by many Copts in Arabic that roughly translates to: “There is a time for your God and a time for your own enjoyment” (don’t waste your time – it’s not actually in the Bible).
The Orthodox Church resolves this dilemma by appealing not only to the Bible, but also to Holy Tradition: the ancient guidelines worked out by the earliest Christians. Tradition is not a dead museum exhibit, but a living, growing thing, and in these times of change, the Church, guided in humility by the Holy Spirit, seeks to properly apply those timeless universal laws of the Bible to an ever-changing world that is constantly throwing up new challenges and new questions to be answered.
The danger to be avoided is that of bowing to the letter of the law, when it is always the spirit of the law that we must embrace. And that often requires complexity.
“Who dwells in the highest and beholds the lowly” – Anaphora of the Liturgy of St Basil
How incredible to stand before the altar of God (which is His symbolic throne here on earth) and contemplate His true Heavenly Throne. He dwells in the highest of places, His existence is the highest existence, His glory, the highest of glories, and so on. Yet this Being of unimaginable height still cares for a lowly sinner such as I!
One can imagine Zacchaeus the tax collector as he sat perched in the branches of the sycamore tree, trying to glimpse Jesus through the crowd that milled around Him and hid Him from view. Then suddenly, in an instant, a chance configuration of the crowd opens a direct line of sight between him and Jesus. Imagine Zacchaeus’ surprise as he realises that Jesus is looking directly at him! Not only looking, but speaking, taking note of him, acknowledging his existence! Not only that, but actually promising to come and stay in his own house!
“Why me?” you can almost hear him thinking. “Who am I that the Master should choose my house to stay in? I am not important, or popular or rich. I am not a religious leader or even a righteous man. Everyone despises and hates me, and stays away from me. But He wants to stay at my house!”
We too would feel like that if we truly acknowledged our lowliness before God. Every liturgy, the crowd parts, and Jesus is looking directly at YOU. He asks you also, saying, “Today, I would like to stay at your house”. Will you let Him in? Will you free yourself from other commitments? Will you greet Him as Zacchaeus did, with humility and repentance, or will you greet Him as the Pharisee did, with snobbishness and judgment?
It comes back to one thing: do you see yourself as lowly and humble, or as an exalted good and righteous and deserving person? “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4). If you wish to have Jesus relieve you of your heavy burden, then you must learn from Him, for He is “humble and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Until I too humble myself before Him and admit my lowliness, I shall never truly experience the full presence and the indescribable glory of the Lord.
The Coptic of this phrase is: Fi-etshop khen ni-etchpsi; owoh etgousht ejen ni-et-theviout. It is one of those phrases in the liturgy where any translation into English fails to do the original meaning full justice.
The word “shop” means to ‘be’, but in a very special way. It mainly means to abide, to be somewhere or simply to be, but it also implies ‘existence’. When used of God in this way, it indicates the theological concept that God IS existence – He is the source of all that exists, and it is He alone who is self-existent; He exists because that is His nature, and not because anyone or anything else causes Him to exist.
The same Coptic word is used in John 8:58: “before Abraham was, I AM [shopi anok pe]”. The “I AM” is usually written in capitals because it was a very clear reference to one of the names of God in the Old Testament. When Moses at the burning bush asked for a name of God to give to the Israelites in Egypt, God told him, “’I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you”’” (Exodus 3:14).
Equally beautiful is the word here used for us: ni-et-theviout. The Coptic construction of the word implies far more than is relayed by the English translation, “the lowly”. thevioutis an adjectival root that means ‘humble’. But when etcomes before it, it comes to mean not that we are humble, but that we have been humbled: it turns the adjective into something that has happened to us or been done to us. Thus, a more accurate translation of this nuance in meaning might be “He that IS, in the highest; and looks upon those who have been humiliated”.
What a beautiful and concise summary of our true state! God is the self-existent Creator who needs nothing. He is not interested in us because we are capable or worthy or strong. He is interested in us most when we are at our weakest, when we are brought low, when we are broken. And this state is one that almost always comes upon us against our own will, for who enjoys being humiliated? Who goes out to seek humiliation on purpose? And yet, it is when we are at our lowest that we are most likely to experience the loving care of God and to feel His presence; to sense that all-encompassing gaze of compassion and care surrounding us and blanketing us with healing and warmth.
And the tune of the Coptic melody brings out this stark contrast of our neediness to God’s powerful compassion beautifully. The melody rises suddenly and dramatically with chosi– ‘highest’; and then it descends rapidly, as if with God’s gaze looking down upon us, to peter out into our lowly humiliation; the last part of theviout.
One imagines a beggar standing at night in a field, looking up at the startling multitude of sparkling gems strewn across the dark velvet backdrop of space and being pierced by its majesty and beauty, and then lowering his gaze once more to behold himself: bedraggled, dirty, torn and bruised from the harsh buffeting of those who despise him.
We are currently in the process of developing an updated course of religious education for the Primary School at St Mark’s College. It’s a huge job (all prayers much appreciated) and one that will take at least a couple of years if it is to be done right. Part of the process is to identify and list the most important verses and Bible passages so that a schedule of passages for memorisation can be produced. Rather than putting this together willy nilly, our strategy is to first identify the most important Bible passages and then pare this list down to those that are most crucial. These will be memorised over the 13 years of schooling the students receive at a Coptic School.
If you had to list the most important Bible passages to you, which would you include? Perhaps they would be passages of comfort and hope? Would you put in those that teach basic tenets of the Christian faith, like the divinity of Christ or the means of salvation? Would you include passages that are just poetically beautiful? I have found the process to be surprisingly interesting. Having only completed less than half the job, our list has already gone over the 250 mark. Every one of them is a passage that is probably instantly recognisable to any Christian, yet I had no idea there were so many!
I am beginning to think I might want to print up this list and hang it on my wall. In a way, it is like a gallery that depicts all I believe, and how I want to live my life. Of course, the danger is that this list ends up being just a transcription of the whole Bible, so a degree of discernment must be applied. And that’s the hard part. It isn’t hard to find life-changing passages in the Bible; the hard part is choosing a select few to represent the whole faith.
Anyhow, allow me to share with you some of the more beautiful of the longer passages I have added to the list. I find these inspiring and moving, as profound in their message as they are striking in their expression. My Top Ten Bible Passages:
Perhaps I have leant too heavily on the New Testament and neglected the Old, but it is so hard to choose! Perhaps if I went through this exercise again in a month’s time, the list would be different. If you had to do a personal “Top Ten” list of Bible passages or verses, which would they be? Feel free to share your own particular favourites.
In the days before I became a priest, I had many interesting discussions with various Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons (for some strange reason they seem to avoid me now). Among the many things this taught me was how easy it is to fall into the trap of making the Bible mean what you want it to mean. Allow me to clarify.
There are two ways to approach the Bible. One is to read it with an open mind and let it educate you; and the other is to come to the Bible with a fixed idea already in your mind, and then selectively read it in order to find support for that idea.
I shouldn’t just blame the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. At university I had a rather difficult dialogue with a homosexual Christian. I could not for the life of me see how one could profess Christianity yet openly flout a very clearly stated tenet of Christianity. His arguments were masterpieces of Bible twisting.
And just in case you’re starting to feel a bit smug about it all at this stage, I am afraid that we in the Coptic Church are sometimes guilty of a bit of clever Bible twisting ourselves. How often have I heard a disgruntled husband sulkily pointing to St Paul’s command that wives must submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22)? Somehow, the verse before it (“submitting to one another”) seems to be invisible to these guys. People use Bible passages to accuse and discredit their enemies, forgetting that the same Bible exhorts them to love their enemies and do good to those who persecute them.
In fact, the Bible itself warns us not to twist its words: “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter1:20). History is replete with sad examples of Christians reading into the Bible support for their own agendas that in reality have nothing to do with God’s Word. The medieval Crusaders killed and pillaged and raped in the name of Christ. The European Catholic Church of the early Renaissance put people to death as heretics for believing that the earth orbits around the sun. In each of these cases, selected Bible verses interpreted in a certain way were used to back up these actions; actions that we now see are clearly the opposite of what the Bible stands for and teaches.
The Protestant Reformation reacted to this particular form of Bible twisting by creating its own. Martin Luther himself is notorious for calling the Epistle of St James a “book of straw” and dismissing its teachings. Why? Because St James insists that “faith without works is dead”, whereas Luther espoused the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone without works. Thus does HH Pope Shenouda III often warn us to beware the danger of the “single verse”; the use of a Bible passage taken out of context, and without reference to all the other passages in the Bible that touch upon the topic.
You can be more confident in your interpretation of a Bible passage if no other Bible passage contradicts that interpretation (of course, you must also beware of mangling the meaning of other passages so you can squeeze them into your interpretation). As Orthodox Christians, we have another check on our interpretation: Holy Tradition. This consists of the interpretation of the Bible by the Fathers of the Church, the generations who lived in the centuries immediately after Christ, including Fathers who knew the Apostles personally, who sat and learned at their feet.
Christianity is a living tradition, not a monument of granite. The basic truths of Christianity will always be the same in every age and in every society, but of course it is the application of those truths that can often be most challenging. How much harder that challenge is if those truths themselves are vague or misinterpreted because we haven’t been diligent and honest in our reading of the Bible!