Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Common Sense and the Covenant

Now that the proposed Anglican Covenant has had time to circulate through the blogosphere, and produce the predictable reactions ranging from "So what?" to "Outrageous, simply outrageous!", maybe there will be an opening for some common sense to enter the room. I cannot promise that what follows will appeal to all Anglicans, but to those who may find its perspective useful, you are welcome to use it as a springboard for your own thoughts and reactions. I shall adopt a question-and-answer format.

What is the proposed Anglican Covenant?

It is a written compact, entered into by constituent members of the family of churches which we call the Anglican Communion, to evidence their shared commitment to the bonds of their common faith. The Covent expresses its purpose this way, in its introduction:
We recognise the wonder, beauty and challenge of maintaining communion in this family of churches, and the need for mutual commitment and discipline as a witness to God’s promise in a world and time of instability, conflict, and fragmentation. Therefore, we covenant together as churches of this Anglican Communion to be faithful to God’s promises through the historic faith we confess, our common worship, our participation in God’s mission, and the way we live together.
The Anglican Communion has existed for over a hundred and forty years. Why does it need a Covenant now?

The Anglican Communion does not need a Covenant. It could go right on being the Anglican Communion without one. However, there are certain churches in the Communion which recently have taken it upon themselves to proclaim that they, and they alone, are the sole judges of whether they are "Anglican" or not. The Covenant is the understandable reaction of those churches who do not agree with this stance. By proposing a common Covenant, they hope to have the members of the Communion coalesce around a set of principles and precepts on which all can agree.

The beauty of the Covenant is that it is self-authenticating. If a majority adopts it, then there will be no issue as to whether or not they are "Anglican". And if there is a minority that does not adopt it, they will by that act have defined themselves as apart from the majority of the Anglican Communion.

What kinds of principles and precepts are the churches being asked to affirm?

The Covenant is divided into four parts. Each part contains a section of affirmations, where each church confirms what it believes and professes, and is followed by a section of commitments, wherein each church undertakes to put into practice that which it affirms.

The first part is "Our Inheritance of Faith." It affirms the basic elements of our faith as received and traditionally taught -- as revealed and embodied by the Holy Scriptures, as summarized in the creeds and celebrated in the sacraments, as led by an episcopate in the apostolic succession, under a common liturgy and with a commitment to fulfill Christ's Great Commission to take his Gospel to the whole world. The churches then commit to be true and abiding witnesses to this common faith -- in their liturgies, teaching, missions, and leadership in their respective regions, and in their fellowship with each other.

The second part is "The Life We Share with Others: Our Anglican Vocation." It affirms the Communion's calling to evangelism and mission, both on its own and in combination with other denominations, and commits the member churches to respond to that calling.

The third part is "Our Unity and Common Life." This is the part that was deemed necessary as a result of the actions begun by ECUSA in 2003, and continuing with the actions taken both by the Anglican Church of Canada and now by ECUSA with respect to blessings of same-sex couples. It affirms the relationship of the churches as living "in communion with autonomy and accountability," the "central role of bishops as guardians and teachers of the faith," and the establishment and recognition of the four "Instruments of Communion" -- the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates Meeting. Each church signing the Covenant then commits to -- well, to act like churches which are in communion with each other: to respect each other's autonomy while exercising that autonomy only for the good of the Communion as a whole, and to "act with diligence, care and caution with respect to any act which . . . could threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission."

The fourth part reaffirms the declarations and commitments of the first three parts, and then sets out procedures for the Covenant's adoption and implementation, including the bringing of disputes about its meaning to the Instruments of Communion, and the resolution of disputes through the mechanisms established. There are no Communion-wide penalties or sanctions for acts deemed by the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion (consisting of members drawn both from the Primates Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council) to be "incompatible with the Covenant." The Standing Committee may only make recommendations; it is up to the Instruments of Communion, or the individual member churches, as the case may be, to decide whether to accept them.

That does not sound particularly controversial. Why are the reactions to the Covenant (from indifference to outrage) as strong as they are?

The Communion without its Covenant is currently a dysfunctional family. Some of its members will not sit down at the table with other members, and some will not even talk to others. There are anger and frustration enough for twenty families! Proposing they all sign a Covenant in common is equivalent to asking the typical dysfunctional family to agree on which movie they will watch tonight. Some are angry that they are even being asked to sign even this modest Covenant, while others are angry that this Covenant is too modest, and does not go far enough. Some think it is a betrayal of family principles even to agree on principles held in common. Others think that the mechanisms provided to implement the Covenant will give birth to a very un-Anglican magisterium, with authority over each of the member churches.

How will the Covenant be able to bring unity out of such discord?

That is just the problem -- it won't; it cannot. Even if they can agree on a movie to watch for one evening, the dysfunctional family will go right back to being dysfunctional when it is over. If the Communion had had such a Covenant in place before July 2003, I doubt very strongly that its existence, its contents, or its mechanisms for dispute resolution would have deterred General Convention from confirming V. Gene Robinson as a bishop in the Episcopal Church (USA). In fact, a good test of how the Covenant would or would not work would be to imagine that the Ridley Cambridge final text had been in place in 2003, and then hypothesize about how ECUSA, ACoC and the rest of the Provinces would have proceeded under its mechanisms. (I shall do just that, in a future post.) In the final analysis, we might well have ended up largely where we are now, Covenant or no Covenant. The reason is that the Archbishop of Canterbury has largely allowed ECUSA and ACoC to call their own shots -- because, as I explained in this earlier post, in reality he has little authority to do more, and even less inclination to assert any more authority than he already has asserted. We saw that the Windsor Report's recommendation that ECUSA and the ACoC withdraw from the councils of the Communion was followed for exactly one cycle of the ACC's meetings, and then all was back to business as usual. The ABC may or may not have wanted that to happen, but without a majority of the Primates' Meeting willing to act with or without the ABC, nothing further could happen.

Then what would be the point in signing it?

It's a good question, but it does not have a single answer. Those who are pushing for its adoption will want to sign it just as a means of differentiating themselves from ECUSA and the ACoC, and by signing it, they will do just that, as I explained above. Then, as in any family, there are the lookers-on, the ones who will wait to see what everyone else will do before acting themselves. Although the official Communion Website currently identifies forty-four churches as being part of the Communion, only thirty-nine of those are listed on the Schedule of Membership for the Anglican Consultative Council. (The reason is that there are five non-provinces, or "extra-provincial dioceses", plus the Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba, who are recognized as members of the Communion through their relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other member provinces, but only Ceylon has a regular seat on the ACC. The others send delegates by invitation of the Council as co-opted members.)

Of those being invited to sign the Covenant, as far as I can tell, fifteen have never submitted any kind of official response to or comments upon the various drafts of the Covenant, beginning with "Towards an Anglican Covenant" as proposed by the (then) Joint Standing Committee. These churches (mostly from Africa and Asia, but also including Mexico and Central America) -- amounting to almost a third of the total -- have been indifferent to the process to date, and will probably go along with whatever most of the other member churches decide to do.

Meanwhile, the Global South (accounting for another fourteen or so members) has expressed its impatience with the slow process of the Covenant, and with its lack of any real disciplinary mechanisms. The arbitrary and legally inconsistent refusal to seat one of Uganda's delegates at the ACC-14 meeting in Jamaica which approved the Ridley Draft caused a rift between the Primates of the Global South and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Nevertheless, it appears that the Primates of the Global South will endorse the Ridley Draft as early as next April. And to tell the truth, it will only be by signing on to the Covenant that the Global South will be able to participate in the use of its mechanisms to limit the further damage being done by ECUSA and ACoC. (See additional remarks re ECUSA below.)

If we leave out ECUSA and ACoC, and the member churches that returned a favorable response at some point during the drafting process, that accounts for all but six of the remaining member churches of the Anglican Consultative Council. Two of these, the Anglican Churches in North and South India, have severe constitutional problems imposed by statute on their changing any aspect of their structure, and so their failure to sign will not count as opposition. The elimination of any outside enforcement mechanism should obviate the reservations previously expressed by the Church of England; indeed, its comments submitted on Section 4 were the most extensive of any received. That leaves just four churches -- Brazil, Korea, New Zealand and Scotland -- whose comments to date do not indicate an unqualified endorsement of the Covenant as proposed.

In summary, it is a fair guess that at least three-fourths of the member churches of the Communion, and perhaps even fourth fifths or more, will sign on to the Covenant. Only as few as six of the 44 member churches, or less than 14% of the total, appear at this point to have problems with adopting it as proposed.

What are some of the reasons given by those who say they cannot sign the Covenant?

They vary quite a bit. Consider this comment from Brazil, which could as well have come from ECUSA itself:
We also express our doubt in relation to section 4.1.1, which deals with the formal acceptance of the Covenant. By speaking of “other Churches” that could subscribe to it, the possibility arises for Churches other than the current members of the Communion to be accepted, which raises doubts about the schismatic Anglican churches that have broken communion within existing Provinces, and today gather groups in open theological conflict with the Anglican Communion.
Apart from the difficulty I have in conceiving how anyone could manage to speak of anyone as being in "open theological conflict with the Anglican Communion", this comment reveals Brazil's historic dependency on ECUSA, as shown particularly by the dispute over Robinson Cavalcante and the Diocese of Recife. Thus as ECUSA goes, so likely will Brazil.

However, the following comment from the Church of Aoteroa, New Zealand and Polynesia is paradigmatic for other Churches as well:
It has never been made clear in any Draft whether adoption of the Covenant can occur at Church level, which in many countries is understood as Parish level, or only at Provincial level. If individual Churches seek to adopt the Covenant but the overall Province does not, then this has the potential for the creation of the very situation which the Covenant seeks to avoid - namely internal strife, conflict and division. In this Province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia which covers five nations and three Tikanga the situation could be complicated further. The scenario could arise where one Tikanga (Constitutional Strand) wanted to adopt the Covenant and the other two did not, and as each Tikanga holds a right of legislative veto, adoption of the Covenant might be blocked. Although legislative amendment could be possible in time, the right of Tikanga veto is an important equality mechanism within this Province and it is unlikely that the governing body: the General Synod Te Hinota Whanui, would enforce adoption through creative legislation, rather than consensus.
In other words, there are provinces in the Communion whose member dioceses cannot all agree to sign the proposed Covenant. This seems to be the case in ECUSA and ACoC as well. The "case of the disagreeing dioceses" is important enough to warrant a separate post of its own, at a later date.

What does the redraft of Section 4 say about who can sign the Covenant?

This has probably been the topic most discussed of all around the Web. It seems to be a natural tendency of human nature to inquire, once the formation of a club is proposed, who can belong to it, and who cannot. The question subdivides into two parts: (a) is there a process spelled out for signing on to the Covenant, and (b) if there is, who has the final say over that process?

With regard to the process of its adoption, the final draft of the Covenant clarified one thing: only current members of the Anglican Communion are invited to adopt the Covenant at this time. Section 4.1.4 states:
Every Church of the Anglican Communion, as recognised in accordance with the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council, is invited to enter into this Covenant according to its own constitutional procedures.
Thus, recognition "in accordance with" the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council becomes the talisman for being able to sign on to the Covenant. For the present, this means only the forty-four Churches whose names are on the Schedule of Membership for that Constitution will be able to adopt the Covenant.

But recognition is an open-ended term. Should an additional church or denomination be recognized in the future "in accordance with" the ACC's Constitution, then that church/denomination will ipso facto be invited to enter into the Covenant as well.

And with regard to who has the final say over who can sign at this point, we must look at the cover letter sent out with the final text of the Covenant. In that letter, Anglican Communion Secretary-General Kenneth Kearon said that no decisions will be made as to further members in the Anglican Communion until after the ACC's next meeting:
The Standing Committee has decided that it will neither invite any other Churches (beyond the Schedule of members of the ACC) to adopt the Covenant (Covenant 4.1.5), nor propose any amendments to it (Covenant 4.4.2), until it has had an opportunity to evaluate the situation after ACC-15.
ACC-15 will take place in New Zealand, probably in May 2012. (This report from ENS that "ACC-15 [is] expected to be held in New Zealand in 2015" is surely a mistake. Although ACC has had its budgetary worries, it plans its meetings on a triennial basis.) This has ramifications for what will happen in the interim.

What ramifications are you talking about?

Consider the sheer numbers mentioned above. I have not studied the polities of the individual churches in the Communion, but I doubt that very many of them have to wait until 2015 to know whether they can amend their Constitution so as to adopt the Covenant; let us assume that such an anomaly applies only to ECUSA's processes of Constitutional amendment, which would require passage of the measure at two successive General Conventions. If that is the case, then by the time the next General Convention meets in June 2012, ACC-15 will have already taken place, and there could be as many as thirty-five to forty churches of the Communion which Secretary-General Kearon could report had signed on to the Covenant by that time. Most likely the number will be a little smaller, but it still will constitute a definite majority of the entire Communion.

All eyes will then be upon ECUSA, to see what it does at its General Convention. These are the logical possibilities:

(A) A Constitutional amendment authorizing General Convention to adopt the Covenant is proposed, and is defeated in either or both Houses in a vote called by orders (it takes a request by the clerical or lay deputies from any three or more separate dioceses to have such a vote, and believe me, the activists will request it). Then the Covenant will be dead, as far as ECUSA is concerned. ECUSA thereafter will not be able to claim that it has the Covenant "under consideration", and the Covenant itself will thus exclude ECUSA's representatives (e.g., on the Standing Committee) from playing any role in future decisions with regard to the Covenant. See Section 4.2.8, which reads:
Participation in the decision making of the Standing Committee or of the Instruments of Communion in respect to section 4.2 shall be limited to those members of the Instruments of Communion who are representatives of those churches who have adopted the Covenant, or who are still in the process of adoption.
Thus, from the moment GC 2012 acts to make further constitutional consideration of the Covenant by ECUSA impossible, ECUSA will be excluded from having any say in the decisions of the Standing Committee as to which acts are or are not "incompatible with the Covenant." At that point, the Primates will indeed be called upon to put their muscle behind the language of the Covenant, and to rule that, short of passing on first reading at GC2012 an appropriate constitutional amendment to adopt the Covenant, ECUSA can no longer credibly pretend that it is "still in the process of adoption." (A previous confirmation of Canon Mary Glasspool to the episcopate, together with other such confirmations certain to occur between now and 2012, will detract still further from ECUSA's ability to make any such claim.)

(B) A Constitutional amendment authorizing General Convention to adopt the Covenant is proposed, and it passes by a majority of the orders of the Dioceses in both Houses (see remark above, and see Canon I.5). That would truly be an astonishing event, and if it happens I will turn in my Curmudgeon's Crystal Ball for a new one. The Covenant would then be very much alive in ECUSA, and under the Constitution, each Diocese would be required to take it up at their next annual convention.

(C) A resolution, or perhaps a Canonical amendment purporting to authorize the Executive Council or the Presiding Bishop to adopt the Covenant on behalf of the whole Church is proposed and passes (if it is defeated, then we have the same result as [A] above). Such a measure would be blatantly unconstitutional, because General Convention itself needs a Constitutional amendment for it to be able to grant such authority. It must be admitted, however, that no threat of unconstitutionality has ever deterred General Convention from passing any resolution it pleases. But the question then becomes: if the majority at General Convention has the votes to punt the Covenant down the road like that, then it also has the votes to turn it down straight off the bat. And the only way the rest of the Communion could treat a failure by GC 2012 to adopt a proper Constitutional amendment would be as a vote to reject the Covenant. (After all, the Presiding Bishop herself joined the Executive Council in endorsing a report which says that the process would require two successive General Conventions if approving the Covenant were to require a Constitutional amendment -- which it will.) Not only would the rest of the Communion never accept such an about-face -- since it would have no legitimacy whatsoever under ECUSA's much-vaunted "polity" -- but the LGBT activists who virtually now control General Convention would be incapable of throwing such a sop to the minority who wanted adoption of the Covenant.

And that is it -- those are the logical possibilities of what could take place. (I have left out the theoretical possibility that no resolution/amendment regarding the Covenant whatsoever would be introduced at GC 2012, since that would be the same as an outright rejection in any event.) The bottom line is that General Convention 2012 will be the defining moment for ECUSA, when it is forced to declare of its own free will, and in full accord with its own treasured polity, whether or not it will walk apart from the rest of the Communion. Does anyone -- can anyone -- have the slightest doubt as to what path it will choose?

All the rest that you may read about the Covenant at this point in time is froth, or much ado about nothing. The role of the Standing Committee, its future as a quasi-fifth "Instrument of Unity", is beside the point once GC 2012 meets and does its thing. The Standing Committee will have zero say about the thirty-five to forty who do decide to sign on to the Covenant, and that fact will establish the Covenant as a fixture in the life of the Communion after 2012. In a later post, however, I promise to delve into an analysis of what all this means for ACNA and similar bodies currently outside the Communion.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Debasing the Currency of Truth

At a Christmas party in one of our town's fine old mansions last week, I happened to notice a bill of fare for a New Year's dinner in 1912, framed and hung on the wall. (The ancestors of the house's current owners had previously owned the town's only hotel, and the dinner was advertised for its dining room.) The menu consisted of five courses, including mock turtle consommé, broiled fresh salmon, a variety of salads and vegetables, beef rib roast, and brandied plum pudding (I assume of the flaming variety). The price for this grand fare: seventy-five cents. In 1912: seventy-five cents.

Does that illustrate for you sufficiently how the politicians have debased our currency in just under a hundred years? A meal like that today would cost seventy-five dollars. Thus in 97 years, using that meal as a yardstick, our currency has been debased to one one-hundredth of what it was. What seventy-five pennies bought back then, requires seventy-five hundred pennies to buy today.

There used to be some protection against the debasement of the currency: it was exchangeable for gold. Then in 1934, President Roosevelt and a willing Congress fixed the price of gold at $35 per ounce (debasing the dollar in a single stroke by nearly sixty percent, from the previous price of $20.67 per ounce). Within fifteen or twenty years, nearly all of America's gold mines had been forced to shut down, because the cost of mining the gold had risen far above what the mines could be paid for it. Eventually, the discrepancy between the quantity of paper dollars being printed and the amount of gold bullion in Fort Knox backing them up became too great. First the paper money was declared no longer redeemable in gold, and then even the silver certificates, which had been with us since the days of Grover Cleveland, were replaced by "Federal Reserve Notes". The legend printed on the obverse changed in 1934 as well. Prior to that, it had read: "Redeemable in gold on demand at the United States Treasury, or in gold or lawful money at any Federal Reserve Bank". But beginning with the notes issued in 1934, the legend read: "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private, and is redeemable in lawful money at the United States Treasury, or at any Federal Reserve Bank."

"Redeemable in lawful money" -- just what did that mean? (Today's notes have eliminated the phrase altogether.) In 1934, it meant you could still get silver coinage for your paper dollars. However, Roosevelt had also issued an executive order forbidding citizens from holding more than $100 in gold coins, and demanding that excess gold be returned to the government (for $35 in paper dollars per ounce). He said that the order would be in effect only for the duration of the emergency, but he had not rescinded it when he died in April 1945. The executive order stayed on the books until Gerald Ford rescinded it in 1974. And by then, President Nixon had closed the gold window for foreign national banks. The dollar was completely free of its moorings, and had become a pure fiat currency. Its debasement now proceeded apace.

Simultaneously with the debasement of our nation's currency, there has occurred a debasement in what I will call "the currency of truth". Nearly anything passes for "the truth" these days, as when Secretary Napolitano can claim that "the system worked" when a Nigerian failed to blow up an airliner because he was unable to detonate his bomb in the cabin -- after smuggling the device aboard with no difficulty, while lacking a valid passport, and after having been specifically identified to the State Department (by his own father!) as a potential terrorist. Yes, certainly, "the system worked".

Also, President Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi all claim with a straight face that under the health care monstrosity to which they are giving birth, "you will be able to keep your existing plan." They claim with equal equanimity that expanding healthcare coverage to all, and extending coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, "will not add to the federal deficit." And to top it off, President Obama promised solemnly that he would not raise the taxes of anyone earning less than $250,000 per year. Guess what tax increases are included as part of the "health care" package?

This debasement of the currency of truth is rampant not only in politics, but in religion and science as well. Over at Stand Firm, Sarah Hey has just documented one monumental example in the Diocese of Western New York. The examples could be multiplied many times over -- just look at any of the posts collected on this site under the heading "The Presiding Bishop Defies, and Defiles, the Canons." The unbelievable exposure of hypocrisy and lying that is called "ClimateGate" has evoked equally unbelievable denials by those with a vested interest in the lies, to the point where they insist that the data and calculations on which their models are based are still valid. Fifteen thousand people descend on Copenhagen in the middle of a blizzard, flying in 140 private jets and driving thousands of private limousines, so they can discuss what to do about the problem of "global warming". Meanwhile, as in Copenhagen, hundreds and hundreds of new records for snowfall have been set for 2009 around the northern hemisphere.

As with any currency, however, eventually Gresham's Law kicks in. The bad money drives out the good; people start hoarding the valuable currency, and spending only the worthless money for as long as they can. Eventually, society breaks down to a state of barter and economic collapse. (It is very hard to feed your family by trading scholarly essays for eggs and bread.)

And so it is also with the currency of truth. President Obama lacks all credibility any more, to say nothing of Harry Reid, or Nancy Pelosi. People have stopped listening to what the politicians say, because it is meaningless; they are watching what they do, and are getting very angry as a result. In the Church, parishioners by the droves are voting with their feet. They can no longer be enticed by sermons telling them that "all is well", or by requests for donations in order to keep lawsuits going, as well as to allow the Church's activists at all levels the luxury of sponsoring pro-abortion groups and gay pride parades.

The bad communications are driving out the good. People are hoarding the truth, just like gold coins. The news media have lost most of their readership; the television news shows have lost their audiences. People now gather around a few trusted sources on the Internet -- Michael Yon's reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq is just one stellar example among many.

But as with any currency, the debasement cannot continue forever. Eventually the currency becomes too bulky for even the simplest transactions, or the printing presses run out of paper and ink. What will be the equivalent result of endlessly debasing the currency of truth?

The first casualty will be our government by carefully managed public relations. People will no longer find any point in watching or believing the staged images; speeches given by teleprompter will fail to communicate anything. Voters will gravitate toward those who promise a dose of hard reality -- there will be only a few such candidates at first, but then their success will attract others. There is a hunger for the truth. People sense that if only they are told the truth, they can handle it; what they cannot stand any more is being lied to as the economy crumbles. If by 2012 the national political conventions have not grasped this fact, they will be as meaningless as a General Convention of the Episcopal Church (USA).

The next casualty will be a breakdown of law and order, to accompany the breakdown in the economy. Already we have been treated to the ludicrous spectacle of one corrupt government official after another -- including even the Secretary of the Treasury -- who cannot be bothered with the task of reporting their income accurately and paying the taxes due on it. The IRS is going to find that a good deal of damage has been done to the integrity of self-reporting, on which the whole system is based. And if people truly can be fined and jailed for failing to purchase health insurance -- if that is what our Congress and President are determined to foist upon us -- there will be massive resistance from young people, across the board. More and more of them will drop beneath the government's radar, and do business only in cash or barter; laws on the books will exist only to be evaded and ignored. Small businesses, unable to afford the increased premiums, will lay their remaining workers off. The loss in tax revenues will not be sufficiently offset by gains in productivity. Extending unemployment benefits, as Congress has just done yet again, serves only to prolong the period during which people will continue to be unable to find work. The government will continue to operate massively in the red -- can't it see that paying people not to work requires people actually working to provide the wherewithal to pay those who are not? It cannot, because the politicians are blind to that simple truth.

The current administration, whether it is re-elected or not, will finally lose its credibility even abroad. If investors sense a default, there will be a run on the dollar, followed by limitations imposed on the transfer of dollars out of the country. That announcement in turn will be the precursor of a truly momentous event: the Treasury will fail to sell the required number of bonds at auction, with the result that the Fed has to purchase them on the QT. But the truth will out, because it is more valuable than all the paper money the Fed could ever print. China and other foreign lenders will purchase no more notes or bonds, and the government's default will then be postponed only to the extent the Fed can keep cranking out ever more worthless money. Weimar-style inflation will ensue. The President may call out the troops, and complete collapse of our major cities may be avoided for the time being. But the situation will be extremely precarious. The country will teeter on the verge of a plunge into martial law and dictatorship, or of a grass-roots rebellion that finally turns out the incumbents en masse.

At that critical stage, which way the teeter-totter will swing will depend on the ability of the people to stay connected to the truth. Imagine a high-atmosphere thermonuclear blast which in a split second knocked out all our telecommunications and electronics, and rendered the generation of electricity impossible. No telephones, radio or television -- how would you begin to establish communications with others? No electricity, no operable vehicles -- how would you begin to provide the rudiments of survival for your family? Answering those questions, for your own unique situation, will begin to provide you with clues as to how the channels of truth will be maintained in the coming nationwide crisis.

For a crisis is certainly coming -- as long as we continue to debase the truth, along with our currency. Unfortunately, the two go hand in hand. When you refuse to face the long-term consequences of debasing the currency, you begin to tell lies about what is really happening. And when you find that lies come easily, you cease to be troubled by anything that depreciates the currency. Barring a political epiphany, which would be on the order of a miracle, the current administration and Congress will not stop doing the one, because they are constitutionally (in the mental sense, not the legal) unable to refrain from the other.

So brace yourselves. We are about to see whether, in Lincoln's words, "any nation . . . so dedicated . . . can long endure." For as Proverbs reminds us (19:12):
The one who tells the truth will endure forever, but the one who lies will last only for a moment.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Star of Bethlehem and the Nativity

In this post, the third of a series, we will look at the astronomical evidence surrounding the birth of Our Lord, and show how it relates perfectly to the account given in the second chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. (The first post dealt with a revision to the consensus viewpoint regarding the year of King Herod's death. This revision is crucial, because if we accept the scholarly consensus that Herod must have died in 4 B.C., we miss out on all the astronomical phenomena of 3-2 B.C.) With the date of Herod's death as 1 B.C., it becomes possible for the first time to make sense of the pagan, Roman and Christian chronologies, and thus to arrive at a coherent chronology for the life and death of Jesus.

We begin with the story of the Wise Men, found only in the Gospel of Matthew, ch. 2:

The Visit of the Wise Men
2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem 2:2 saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 2:3 When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 2:5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet:
2:6And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are in no way least among the rulers of Judah,
for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
2:7 Then Herod privately summoned the wise men and determined from them when the star had appeared. 2:8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and look carefully for the child. When you find him, inform me so that I can go and worship him as well.” 2:9 After listening to the king they left, and once again the star they saw when it rose led them until it stopped above the place where the child was. 2:10 When they saw the star they shouted joyfully. 2:11 As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 2:12 After being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back by another route to their own country. . . .

This text, together with the chronology established in this first post and the second one, furnish all the information we need to identify the phenomenon that was the Star of Bethlehem. Who were the "wise men from the East"? And why would they, of all people, come to worship a new-born baby, whom they identified as the "king of the Jews"? Israel had not had any kings for almost six hundred years.

Recall, however, that at the end of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C., most of the Jewish nobility was taken captive to Babylon. One of those taken captive was the young Daniel, who as a gifted interpreter of dreams went into court service under first Nebuchadnezzar, and then Belshazzar, until Darius conquered Babylon. His continued Jewish piety earned him several enemies at court, but he survived the ordeal of the lions' den, and remained at the court until his death at an old age. In that role he may have learned all the observational skills of the Babylonian (Chaldean) court astronomers. One branch of that science led to the founding of astrology -- the notion that the stars influenced events on earth. Astrology is, however, condemned in the Bible, and as a pious Jew, Daniel would not have seen his role for that purpose.

At the same time, however, there is a long-noted tradition in the Bible of of seeing and interpreting signs in the heavens (as referenced in the previous link). It is reasonable to conjecture, since the wise men came to "worship" the newborn king of the Jews and to offer him costly gifts, that they were (a) Jewish court astronomers from Babylonia, in the tradition of Daniel; and (b) skilled in interpreting heavenly signs in the Jewish tradition.

[UPDATE 01/17/2010: For a most fascinating look into just how far advanced the ancients were with regard to astronomical calculations and modeling, take a look at this story with its pictures of an early "eclipse computer".]

Let us, then, take note of what the wise men said they saw -- that brought them from Babylonia, a journey of almost a thousand miles (according to the traditional route of the caravans; it took Ezra four full months to cover the distance [Ezra 7:8-9]):

"For we have seen his star in the East" is the traditional language of the King James Version. The NET Bible, which I quoted above, gives the more accurate rendition: "we saw his star when it rose [in the East]." The Greek word which appears in the text of Matthew is anatole, which refers to the rising of astronomical objects in the east -- due to the earth's diurnal rotation.

This is our first important clue as to the identity of the Star -- that it rose in the East, like most other stars. (The North Star, of course, remains fixed, and the ones in its vicinity do not "rise" in the East either.) Other clues in the text are (a) its duration, for a period of at least five months while the Wise Men traveled and met with Herod, before continuing on to Bethlehem; (b) its need for special skills to interpret its meaning and significance (Herod was taken by surprise, and had to ask when the star had "risen"); (c) its ability to seem to travel in a given direction, first from east to west, toward Jerusalem, and then south, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem; and last but not least (d) its apparent ability to come to a stop over Bethlehem.

These clues severely limit the possible candidates for the Star. It could not have been a bright meteor (duration, change of direction), or a supernova (change of direction, lack of observation by Herod [as well as no record of any supernovae in this period in the well-maintained Chinese observational records]), or a comet (same; plus, a comet was anciently an omen of doom, not of joy), or simply some very bright star (same). That eliminates pretty much all but one type of celestial body from consideration: the planets.

"Planet" comes for the Greek word for "wanderer", and planets indeed do wander in their observed motions through the sky as they rotate around the sun. The ones closer to the sun orbit it very quickly; Mercury takes just eighty-eight days, and Venus about eight months. As a consequence of the small size of their orbits, they are not seen as having any very great elongation from the sun -- they generally rise and set with it, and are consequently seen as either "morning" or "evening" stars, depending on their position relative to the sun.

The outer visible planets -- Mars, Jupiter and Saturn -- take much longer than earth to rotate around the sun, and therein lies the reason for their seemingly odd behavior when observed from the earth: they can appear to move backward in the sky as the earth overtakes them in orbit, exactly as a car which you are passing on the freeway appears to move backward, even though both of you are moving forward. This phenomenon is known as "retrograde motion", and from our standpoint on earth, it applies only to the planets whose orbits are outside ours.

So we ask: what were the planets doing in the skies of 3-2 B.C.? Through the abilities of modern astronomical software, we may answer: quite a lot. In what follows, I am making use of a program called "Starry Night", available for both PCs and Macs, and which allows you to re-create on your desktop the stars and planets as they would have appeared in the sky observed from any point on the earth (or elsewhere, for that matter), at any time in the past or future. Not only that, but it allows you to control the time-lapses, in order to see the celestial motions as observed from the chosen point. And finally, it allows one to make Quick-Time "movies" of that observed motion.

Now, then, using Starry Night, let us travel back in time to the skies over Babylon in the early hours of the morning of August 12, 3 B.C. [UPDATE 12/28/2009: As Rolin points out below, Babylon was no longer settled in the first century B.C. The Parthian court had moved to Seleucia, on the Tigris River about 45 miles due north of the site of ancient Babylon. The distance does not make any difference in the views that follow, and so I have left the description as being from the viewpoint of the skies over Babylon.] Watch the movie below, and you will see what the Babylonian astronomers observed rise in the East, beginning about 4 a.m. To orient what you are seeing, I have included graphical (but faint) depictions of the constellations, and you will make out the claw of Cancer the Crab, and the head and the mane of Leo the Lion, as the sky gradually reddens (and cloud wisps appear -- for aesthetic effect) with the rising of the sun:

If all worked as designed (I find one has to be patient, and allow time for the video to load), you saw rise in the east a very close conjunction of the planet Venus (considered since Sumerian times as the "mother planet") with the planet Jupiter just on the boundary between Cancer and Leo. And with this conjunction -- the two planets are still separately distinguishable -- Jupiter, the largest of all the planets and hence known in ancient times as "the King planet", began a seventeen- month odyssey through the skies, from August of 3 B.C. to December of 2 B.C., which displayed each of the characteristics identified in the passage from Matthew, quoted above.

Because all the planets lie along the ecliptic, with Venus being the second closest to the sun, Jupiter has to have a conjunction with Venus at least once every time it makes a conjunction with the sun during its 4,333-day (11.86 years) orbit, and if the circumstances are right, retrograde motion will produce two more conjunctions. Thus, Jupiter-Venus conjunctions occur either once or three times in any given cycle. However, due to the combination of factors explained in this article, the actual close conjunctions (to within half a degree, or 30 arc minutes) of Jupiter and Venus occur only once every eighteen years, on the average. The conjunction just depicted, on August 12, 3 B.C. was at an angular separation of about 15 arc minutes in the dawn hours, and closed to just 4 arc minutes at the maximum approach -- which, however, occurred in broad daylight (at just around 11 a.m.) over Babylon. Thus it was a much more rare occurrence, on the order of about once every 144 years -- or only once, if at all, in the lifetimes of two successive Chaldean astronomers. So the Babylonian magi would have taken note of this conjunction over others -- they had likely never seen anything as close before.

From its close conjunction with Venus, Jupiter traveled westward to make a conjunction to within a third of a degree with the star Regulus, in Leo, on September 14. This again was a noteworthy conjunction -- the King planet with the King star (Regulus, "little king", from the Latin word rex, "king" -- which was the actual name of the star for the Romans, while the Arabs called it "the Kingly One"), in the kingly constellation of Leo. Because Regulus is at a fixed place along the ecliptic, Jupiter-Regulus conjunctions are also once every 11.86 years when they occur. So the conjunction on September 14, 3 B.C., although somewhat closer than usual (20', or a third of a degree) would not have been special but for the preceding very rare close conjunction between Jupiter and Venus. However, as the next film shows, Jupiter's conjunction with Regulus occurred not just once, but three times between September of 3 B.C. and May of the succeeding year, due to the fact that Jupiter's retrograde motion happened to fall precisely in the portion of the ecliptic where Regulus was to be found:

(After you have gotten this video to play, I suggest you use the slider control to run through it again manually in order to see the three separate occasions on which Jupiter comes into conjunction with Regulus. The dates of the closest approaches were September 14, 3 B.C. (20' of separation), February 17, 2 B.C. (51' of separation), and May 8, 2 B.C. (43' of separation). The Chaldean astronomers would have seen this triple conjunction, which traced out a little oval above Regulus, as the King planet "crowning" the King star, after first having made a conjunction with the Mother planet. This could easily indicate the birth of a new king. The fact that the conjunctions all took place in the constellation of Leo would have signified to them that it was a king of the tribe of Judah that was born, because as Jacob blessed Judah's tribe in Genesis 49:9:

You are a lion’s cub, Judah,
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He crouches and lies down like a lion;

like a lioness – who will rouse him?
Judah was the tribe that ruled in Judea, where Bethlehem was located, and the Jews take their own name from this tribe. Thus it is easy to see how Jupiter's triple conjunction with Regulus after a close conjunction with the mother planet could have signified to the magi that there was a new king of the Jews born to the west, in Judea.

Jupiter's own motion in the heavens at this point would have been seen as westward from the vantage of Babylon, except when it reversed course and moved in retrograde. Its double return to a conjunction with Regulus after the first conjunction in September might have also been viewed as a sort of beckoning to them: the star started off westward, toward Judea, but then came back as if to say, "Come and follow me", before heading off once again westward toward Judea.

Given that there is at least a single conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus every 11.86 years, what is the frequency of triple conjunctions? As explained in this article, there is a periodic cycle of such conjunctions between Jupiter and Regulus every 83 years (see Table VI on page 23). When they repeat, however, they usually come in pairs, separated by 11.86 years. The reason is that the elongation of Jupiter's retrograde motion (about eleven degrees) is usually sufficient to take in Regulus on two successive orbits around the sun. As Table VI in the cited article shows, the most recent triple conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus occurred in 1967-68, while the next one will not occur until 2038-39. (It will be followed by a second triple conjunction in 2050-51, and then the cycle will not repeat again until 2121-22 and 2133-34.)

The triple conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus that was the "pair" of that in 3-2 B.C. occurred twelve years earlier, in 15-14 B.C., and the "crown" thus formed was actually more centered on Regulus. However, it was not preceded by any close conjunction between Jupiter and Venus, as occurred in August in 3 B.C.: the closest approach between Jupiter and Venus in 15 B.C. was wider by a third than the diameter of a full moon.

And we still are not done with Jupiter's odyssey. After its third conjunction with Regulus on May 8, 2 B.C., Jupiter proceeded to another conjunction with Venus -- even closer than the one in the previous year! Here is a movie of how that conjunction, which occurred as the sun set in the west on June 17, 2 B.C., would have appeared from Babylon, beginning at about 5:30 PM local time. You will see only a faint indication of the conjunction while it is still daylight, but then the movie depicts very accurately how the two planets, at first barely separable visually, appear literally to fuse into one brilliant star as the sky darkens into night. The movie ends about 10 PM, with the conjoined planets sinking below the local horizon:

Now, that conjunction would really have gotten the attention of the magi! The King planet joins again with the Mother planet, but this time in the constellation Leo, not alongside it; and not far from the King star, Regulus. Moreover, the two planets fuse into one, so that they cannot be separated by the naked eye. Yet Venus does not cover Jupiter, which remains slightly above her. But their light combines -- and since Venus as an evening star has apparent magnitude of -4.3 (the brightest nonlunar object in the night sky), while Jupiter's apparent magnitude is around -1.8, their combined apparent magnitude of greater than -6 would have been far brighter than any other object ever seen in the night sky other than the moon itself (which even in its full phase is about magnitude -12).

The Jupiter-Venus conjunction of June 17 set in the west, as seen from Babylon/Seleucia. If the wise men had taken a few weeks to consult and make their plans, and had set out to follow Jupiter to the west beginning in July, then as we have seen from Ezra's example, they might have arrived in Jerusalem some time after the middle of November. They would have been Herod's guests for at least a couple of weeks, while he tried to mine them for all possible information about this new king they had come to worship. And then they would have set out for Bethlehem. What was Jupiter doing in the sky in early December of 2 B.C.? Just watch (this time our movie is filmed from the horizon in Jerusalem):

You are looking southwest of Jerusalem, tracking Jupiter in the night sky, in the constellation of Virgo, the virgin. Each time the frame of the movie refreshes, one day has elapsed. The movie shows the course followed by Jupiter, marking the date intervals every few days. Notice that Jupiter heads steadily lower, toward the horizon, but then comes to a stop, and eventually reverses course. And note the date when it begins to come to a stop -- December 24! For the entire twelve days from December 25, 2 B.C. to January 6, 1 B.C., Jupiter stood still in the night sky, hovering over a point southwest of Jerusalem, as the earth overtook it in its orbit around the sun.

Bethlehem is just five miles southwest of Jerusalem, on the main road. To the magi, it would indeed appear as though the King planet had guided them there. And they would have arrived during the Jewish festival of Hannukah, during which Jews gave each other gifts.

This is indeed a remarkable odyssey on the part of a planet. Two very rare conjunctions with Venus not quite a year apart, the second even closer than the first, with a triple conjunction of Regulus in between, and then another retrograde motion beginning on December 25 while it is in the southwest sky over Jerusalem, in the constellation of Virgo. What are the odds of such a sequence recurring?

As I noted above, the first conjunction of Jupiter with Venus was an event which might have been seen once in every 144 years. Triple conjunctions of Jupiter with Regulus occur in pairs every 83 years. Because 83 is prime, the periodicity of the two cycles will repeat only once about every 11,952 (=83 x 144) years. And that is without regard to the second closer conjunction with Venus, to within 30 arc seconds, which would have been seen only once in about every 1,080 years. Because 144 is commensurate with 2,160 (= 2 x 1,080 = 15 x 144), we could expect the unique course of planetary events seen in 3-2 B.C. to recur again in about 179,280 (= 15 x 11,952) years.

The Nativity was thus, from the standpoint of the signs in the sky, truly a unique event. We still have not, however, exhausted all the Biblical accounts of it. In a later post I will take up another of the Bible's descriptions of the signs at the time of Jesus' birth, and show how they fit in with what has been discussed in the three posts to date. For the present, let us conclude that there were sufficient signs in the sky to give the wise men ample cause to go and investigate the birth of the King of the Jews.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Musical Meditation for Christmas

Ach Herr, du Schöpfer aller Ding,

Oh Lord, Creator of us all,

Wie bist du worden so gering,

How art Thou now become so small,

Dass du da liegst auf dürrem Gras,

That there Thou liest on hard straw bed,

Davon ein Rind und Esel ass?

From which both cow and donkey fed?

(Music: Heinrich Schütz, 1585-1672 [SWV 450]; Text: Martin Luther, 1483-1546 [Stanza 9 of Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her, 1536]; Performance: Hendricks Chapel Choir, December 1978; Art: Fra Angelico, The Nativity, 1439-1443.)

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI reminds us of a possible answer to Martin Luther's question:

The medieval theologian William of Saint Thierry once said that God – from the time of Adam – saw that his grandeur provoked resistance in man, that we felt limited in our own being and threatened in our freedom. Therefore God chose a new way. He became a child. He made himself dependent and weak, in need of our love. Now – this God who has become a child says to us – you can no longer fear me, you can only love me.

(H/T: the Rev. Canon Kendall Harmon, Titus19)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Antiphon and Magnificat (Dec. 23): O Emmanuel

December 23 is the last of the "Golden Nights" of Advent (they began December 17). Other blogs have been doing an excellent job of covering each of the "O-Antiphons" appointed for one of these nights -- see the posts at Stand to Reason and Fr. Dan Martin's Confessions of a Carioca, and see all of the antiphons and their texts in English and Latin at this link.

On Sunday we heard a magnificent Christmas choral concert featuring the twelve incredible voices of Chanticleer. It was one of the most beautiful concerts in memory -- their range and pure intonation enable one simply to close one's eyes in any space in which they perform, and be transported to a world of pure music.

One of the pieces they sang was the O-Antiphon for the first night of the octave, "O Sapientiae", in its (German) setting ("O Weisheit") by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Both the music and the performance were so incredibly beautiful that I went searching for the rest of the O-Antiphon settings which he composed. I found this equally beautiful setting of the last antiphon, "O Emmanuel", and though it is not sung by Chanticleer, I want to share it with you on this December 23.

(Due to copyright restrictions, the recording may be listened to only at this link; I am unable to embed it on this site. The text is sung in German: O Immanuel, unser König und Lehrer, du Hoffnung und Heiland der Völker. O komm, eile und schaffe uns Hilfe, du unser Herr und unser Gott. You may listen to a Latin plainchant rendition of the antiphon at this link.)

After you have closed your eyes and listened to Pärt's distinctive setting, let me share with you some information about the composer and his distinctive technique of composition (which he calls "tintinnabuli"), and how he came to develop it. The story is a Bible-true example of how God brings forth good out of evil.

Arvo Pärt was born September 11, 1935 in Paide, Estonia, and began his study of music at age seven. The Soviet occupation of Estonia, which began in 1944 and lasted for over fifty years until 1992, had a profound effect on his life and music. Under the Soviet regime, Pärt's contact with contemporary Western composers and their techniques was severely limited. Nevertheless, by listening to smuggled tapes and studying their associated scores, Pärt managed to learn about the twelve-tone music of Arnold Schönberg, and to experiment with it (and other aspects of serialism) in some early compositions. Dissatisfied with the limitations of those techniques, Pärt branched out into others, but ran afoul of the authorities. In 1968 the Soviet censors banned his Credo, a work scored for solo piano, mixed chorus and orchestra which made use of collage techniques. After this event, Pärt went into what became the first of several periods of study and contemplation, in which he wrote no music, but analyzed the scores of great music of the past. He looked closely at the works of the 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut, as well as of the Franco-Flemish choral school of the 15th and 16th centuries, including Ockeghem, Obrecht and Josquin des Prez.

He could not stay away from composition, however; one colleague from school noted that "he just seemed to shake his sleeves and notes would fall out." With his studies of the great choral masters under his belt, he began to experiment in the early 1970s with the polyphonic style in orchestral works, but noted he had not reached "the end of my despair and search." More periods of self-imposed silence followed, during which he delved even deeper into his studies, searching back through medieval plainchant into the very beginnings of music. What emerged by 1976 was a unique transformation, according to his biographer Paul Hillier (p. 91):
. . . with Pärt, it became increasingly clear that a synthesis of these different styles was not acceptable -- not possible even. He desired a fully integrated means of musical expression that would come from within him, rather than be claimed from external sources. So he turned aside from composing (in the sense of producing new, finished pieces), in order to penetrate more deeply into the very nature of music, which has primordially been rooted in some kind of tonal or modal pitch centre. He sought to re-establish tonality as the common basis for musical expression, but without the functional stereotypes of the Classical and Romantic eras. This radical renewal of musical language has often been dismissed as a retreat into the past or as yet another twentieth-century example of recycling an earlier musical idiom. It is the contention of this book that such is not the case. Many composers in recent decades have felt a similar need for a redefined sense of tonality, though few have articulated a response as uniquely expressive or as self-defining as Pärt's.
Arvo Pärt had settled on a technique derived from the earliest forms of Gregorian chant and of the polyphony heard in the 12th and 13th centuries in the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame in Paris. He called it by the Latin term tintinnabuli, or "little bells", and described it as follows:
I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements - with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials - with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.
With tintinnabuli, Pärt divides his forces into essentially two main voices. The first holds steady to a fixed pitch, and may split into notes of a triad associated with that pitch. The second voice moves mostly stepwise away from, and then back towards, the fixed tone(s) of the first voice, creating now eerily beautiful dissonances, and now ethereal harmonies with it. The result can be spellbinding.

In the following video, you can watch a visual illustration of the technique of tintinnabuli at work, because the score scrolls along with the music as it is sung, and you can see which voices are holding constant pitches while other voices weave in and out of the static texture in small steps. This music sets the well-known text of the Magnificat, which is preceded and followed by a different O-Antiphon on each of the Golden Nights. Thus the entire work by Arvo Pärt consists of his setting of the seven O-Antiphons, and this beautiful Magnificat:

Like Arvo Pärt, I am engaging (but only for this Christmas week) in a self-imposed respite. I am leaving alone the latest developments in the legal scene involving the Church and its leaders, and am using the time to blog on other subjects about which I care deeply, including the story of the first Christmas and its related associations in music. I hope to re-engage the legal scene with renewed strength after the New Year. For the present, I hope you will find an experience both fresh and pure in celebrating with me the birth of our Lord and the magi's subsequent adoration of Him, reflected through the eternal beauties of music and the sacred word.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Other Evidence for the Date of the Nativity

In my first post in this series on the date of Christ's Nativity, the purpose was to fix an absolute date -- a terminus ad quem -- by which Jesus had to have been born. We saw that such a boundary was established by the date of Herod's death, and that with reasonable certainty (and going against the scholarly consensus of the last 120 years) the latter date had to have occurred in late January - early February of 1 B.C. Since Herod used the information the Wise Men gave him to determine that the "King of the Jews" they came to worship had been born within the previous two years, that points to sometime in the years 3-2 B.C. as the date of Christ's birth.

In the last post in this series, I will marshal the astronomical evidence for an exact date, by reconstructing the "signs" in the Babylonian night sky which caused the Wise Men to set out on their journey. First, however, in this post I want to summarize the evidence we have from other sources as to the date of the Nativity. And for this purpose, there is no better resource than the revised edition of Jack Finegan's Handbook of Biblical Chronology. (He in turn draws upon the earlier scholarship of Ernest L. Martin and others who have examined the earliest Christian sources.)

We can begin with the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 1-7:
2:1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. 2:2 This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 2:3 Everyone went to his own town to be registered. 2:4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David. 2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, and who was expecting a child. 2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Luke tells us unequivocally that Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus, at a time when he had published a decree for all of those subject to Roman rule to go to their "own town" to be registered. (The Greek word Luke uses, "apographo", can have the meaning "register/enroll for taxes", but that was not its only use. It was also used in registering for other purposes, such as for a census [which was frequently, in the Roman empire, used as a tax base].) In Judea, where Bethlehem was the "home town" of Joseph, this happened when Quirinius was governing in Syria.

There has been much dispute about the accuracy of Luke's account, because Quirinius did not actually become the Roman governor of Syria until 6 A.D., which would be far too late as a birth date for Jesus. However, there are records which indicate that Quirinius may have served as a legate or commander in Syria before that (and note that Luke is specific that "this was the first registration taken when Quirinius governed in Syria"). The second registration is probably the one which Luke alludes to in Acts 5:37, in speaking of the rebel Judas the Galilean. And the clue to what was probably Luke's "first registration" is supplied from the records of the Emperor Augustus himself. He records, in his Res gestae divi Augusti inscribed on the walls of a temple in Ankara,
In my thirteenth consulship the senate, the equestrian order and the whole people of Rome gave me the title of Father of my Country [Pater Patriae].
As we shall see below, we can identify the thirteenth year of Augustus' consulship with the period July 1, 3 B.C. to June 30, 2 B.C. For the "whole people of Rome" to have bestowed the title, there would have had to have been first an enrollment or registration, for each to record his consent before a Roman official. (The Jewish historian Josephus records (Ant. 17.41-45) that " . . . the whole Jewish nation took an oath to be faithful to Caesar," except for six thousand Pharisees, who refused to swear.) The Christian historian Orosius gives the fullest account of the event:
Augustus ordered that a registration be taken of each province everywhere, and that all men be enrolled . . . This is the earliest and most famous public acknowledgment which marked Caesar as the first of all men and the Romans as lords of the world, a published list of all men registered individually. This first and greatest enrollment was taken, since in this one name of Caesar all the peoples of the great nations took oath, and at the same time, through the participation in the census, were made a part of one society.
Accordingly, it is Luke himself who gives us our first clue to the year in which Christ was born: if the "first registration" to which he refers is the first great registration of the whole Roman world ordered by Augustus, then Christ was born sometime between July 3 B.C. and June 2 B.C. As we shall see below, all of the early Christian writers concurred in this point. However, in order to appreciate what those writers say, we first have to understand a little about how regnal years were calculated in the time of Augustus.

We know that Augustus died in August, 14 A.D., but when exactly did he begin his rule? For the custom of early Christian writers was to date an event by telling us in what year of an emperor's reign it happened. (Thus Luke writes, at the beginning of his third chapter: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. . . .")

Now as we all know well, Augustus was called Octavian when his uncle Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. He had picked his nephew as his successor, and so under this theory, Octavian's first regnal year began upon the official unsealing and reading of Julius Caesar's will, which occurred on March 17, 44 B.C. And given his known date of death, on August 19, A.D. 14, we have our first match with ancient sources: the Jewish historian Josephus records that the reign of Augustus Caesar lasted for "fifty-seven years, [five] months and two days (War 2.168; Ant. 18.32).

At the time he wrote, Josephus lived in Rome, and this is how Romans would have reckoned their calendar. But for others who lived in Palestine, Egypt, or northern Africa (such as Tertullian), recall that there was in the years immediately after Julius Caesar's death a triumvirate, ending in a war, during which Mark Antony (and not Octavian) ruled over Egypt. Antony was decisively defeated by Octavian at the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 B.C., and he died, along with his consort Cleopatra, in the latter part of August, 30 B.C. The exact date of Antony's death is uncertain, but it was just before the first day of the new year in the Egyptian calendar, Thoth 1, which corresponded to August 29, 30 B.C. So for Egyptians, the reign of Augustus over their country did not begin until that point, and the regnal years were numbered forward from August of 30 B.C., instead of from March of 44 B.C. Thus for writers counting years from an Egyptian standpoint, Augustus ruled for only forty-three years, not fifty-seven. One has to keep in mind, therefore, that when a writer says "In the twenty-fourth year of the reign of the Emperor Augustus", one must first determine which regnal calendar the writer is using.

Now, add some further chronological wrinkles, consisting of the knowledge that certain writers counted regnal years as beginning with the first day of the Roman year (January 1), and that fractional years before that date could either be counted as a regnal year or not, according to the writer's way of thinking, and you are ready to embark on an interpretation of early Christian sources as to the year of Christ's birth.

Our earliest source is Irenaeus, who wrote (Against Heresies 3.21.3, circa A.D. 180): "Our Lord was born about the forty-first year of the reign of Augustus." Using the Roman regnal system, this would be sometime between March of 3 B.C. and March of 2 B.C.

Next we have Clement of Alexandria, writing in his Stromata (1.21.145, circa A.D. 194): "And our Lord was born in the twenty-eighth year . . . in the reign of Augustus." Alexandria is in Egypt, and so using Egyptian regnal reckoning, this would have been between August 29, 3 B.C. and August 28, 2 B.C. -- again, in good agreement with Irenaeus. But Clement goes on to make this remarkable statement: "From the birth of Christ . . . to the death of Commodus are, in all, 194 years, one month, thirteen days." The Emperor Commodus was murdered on December 31, A.D. 192. Thus Clement asserts that Jesus was born precisely on November 18, 3 B.C.

Tertullian, who lived and wrote in Roman Africa (ca. A.D. 160-220), assembles his data as follows:
After Cleopatra, Augustus reigned forty-three years.
All the years of the empire of Augustus were fifty-six years.
In the forty-first year of the empire of Augustus, when he ha[d] been reigning for twenty-eight years after the death of Cleopatra, the Christ [was] born.
And the same Augustus survived, after Christ [was] born, fifteen years.
From these statements, we can see that Tertullian is counting only whole regnal years, and is using both the Roman and the Egyptian system. Augustus may have died almost exactly forty-four years from the day Cleopatra died, but he did not live for a full final Egyptian year, and so Tertullian counts his reign as just forty-three years from August 29, B.C. 30. Likewise, leaving out the fractional year after Julius Caesar died, and not counting the fractional last year of Augustus' life, Augustus reigned for fifty-six full years. Having established his method of reckoning, Tertullian thus is asserting that Christ was born in the same time period as stated by Clement, that is, between August 29, 3 B.C. and August 28, 2 B.C. That gave Augustus another fifteen full years of rule until his death in A.D. 14. (Remember, there is no zero year between 1 B.C. and 1 A.D., so you have to subtract 1 when performing the math: -2 (B.C.) to 14 (A.D.) is 16 - 1 = 15 years.)

Julius Africanus, the "father of Christian chronography", lived from circa A.D. 170 to A.D. 240. He is best known for his Chronography, in which he calculates that there were 5,500 years between the creation of the world with Adam and the birth of Christ. By co-ordinating his calculations of other dates, which he relates to the dating of the Greek Olympiads, Jack Finegan shows (Handbook [rev. ed. 1998], sec. 291) that this agrees with all the other earlier Christian writers just cited, and equates to 3/2 B.C. His contemporary, Hippolytus of Rome (ca. A.D. 170 - 236), uses a slightly different means of reaching the date of creation, but gives exactly the same year (3/2 B.C.) for the date of Christ's birth.

In a Greek fragment of his Homilies, Origen (ca. A.D. 185 - ca. A.D. 253) gives the same dates and calculations for Christ's birth as does Tertullian.

Eusebius of Caesarea, the great historian of the early Church, gives (ca. A.D. 325) the "forty-second year of the reign of Augustus" for Christ's birth, but from his other datings of Augustus' reign we can see that he counted the first (fractional) year in 44 B.C. as a full year, so that he, too, agrees with all the preceding writers, and places Christ's birth in 3/2 B.C. Epiphanius (A.D. 315-403) uses the same reckoning as does Eusebius, and gives the additional datum that in Augustus's "forty-second year", when he says Christ was born, the consuls were Octavian (for the thirteenth time) and Silvanus. Table 41 in Finegan's Handbook (pp. 88-89) relates the Roman consulships to Augustus' regnal years, and shows that the year so indicated by Epiphanius ran from July 1, 3 B.C. to June 30, 2 B.C. (And note how this correlates with the year in which Augustus ordered his "first great registration" of all the Roman world, as discussed above.)

We thus have a remarkable unity among all the known Christian writers in the first four centuries as to the year when Christ was born. It was only when the sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus, who had been given the task of continuing Cyril of Alexandria's table of Easter dates (which used a calendar reckoned from the rule of the Emperor Diocletian [A.D. 284-305]), decided to do his calculations running not from a pagan's reign, but from the Nativity itself, that our current calendar was permanently established. Dionysius used a calendar based on counting the years since the founding of Rome (ab Urbe condita, or A.U.C.), and he selected A.U.C. 753 as the year of the incarnation. However, since ancient writers did not all agree on the relationship between the Olympiad years and A.U.C. dates, the system which Dionysius selected made the equivalent of A.U.C. 753 equal to B.C. 1 in Dionysius' calculations.

Given that by the time Dionysius was writing (A.D. 525), Christians had begun to celebrate December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity, Dionysius thus regarded Christ as having been born on December 25, B.C.1, and began his system of anno Domini reckoning with the succeeding January 1. There was no awareness in Roman numbering at the time of the function of zero on a number line. Thus Dionysius' calendar passed directly from December 31, B.C. 1 to January 1, A.D. 1, and we have been stuck with the counting difficulties so created ever since.

It becomes all the more exasperating, then, when a copyist's error in a sixteenth-century manuscript of Josephus has saddled us with the mistake of dating Herod's death to 4 B.C., resulting in an even greater discrepancy between the birth of Jesus and A.D. 1. By going back to the remarkable consensus of the early Christian writers, and by correcting for Herod's death according to the clue which Josephus provides of a lunar eclipse occurring shortly before his death, we can begin to make some sense out of the actual chronology of Jesus' life.

The next step will be to add in the astronomical clues, which are truly remarkable -- indeed, spectacular. I will return to the topic in my post on December 25.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday Fun for a Crumbling America

Here is a fun exercise for the holidays -- and it's just in time for the Christmas Eve pay-offs in Washington! Take a piece of paper, and write down a list of numbers from #1 to #40. Then as you go through the text below, just write down on your list, next to the appropriate number, the word or words which you think are most appropriate in context for that numbered blank:


Washington, D.C. – [#2]________s from across the country today unveiled their Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. In the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, Senate [#3]_______ Leader [#4]__________ and House [#5]________ Leader [#6]__________, were joined by Senator [#7]_____________ and Congresswoman [#8]______________ and their Senate and House colleagues to shine a spotlight on the [#9]____________ "pay for play" politics that put special interests first at the expense of the priorities of the American people and signed a pledge to restore honest leadership and open government.

"There's a price to pay for this corruption in Washington, and we can see it in the state of our union," said Leader [#10]_________. "From seniors who cannot afford their prescription drugs to soldiers sent to war without body armor and middle-class families living on a financial cliff, the cost of corruption is very real. Today, I challenge President [#11]______ - the head of the [#12]________ Party - to match our commitment to honest leadership. When leaders are accountable to people, not lobbyists, there is no limit to how far America can go."

"An ethical cloud hangs over the Capitol," said Leader [#13]___________. "For years [#14]_______s have called for an end to the [#15]____________ culture of corruption, but[#16]____________s have resisted every effort because they benefit from allowing it to continue. This poison tree of corruption has borne the fruits of bad legislation - legislation that has come at great cost to the American people. [#17]___________s are leading the effort to turn the most closed, corrupt Congress we have ever seen into the most open and honest Congress in history."

"The corruption of Washington has done far more damage than sending politicians on golf junkets or showering them with gifts. It has shaken the faith of the American people in a government that looks out for their interests and upholds their values," said Senator [#18]________. "The hired guns on K Street who've been allowed to help write our laws have gotten exactly what they paid for - massive tax breaks for the [#19]___________ companies, giveaways to the [#20]____________ industry, and no-bid contracts for [#21]____________ reconstruction. Meanwhile, hardworking Americans across the country who can't afford their own lobbyist wonder when someone in Washington will help them send their kids to college or pay their medical bills or guarantee their pension. It's time we answered their call."

"Mr. [#22]__________ and his associates will be held up as the beginning and end of our Congressional crisis, but they are just the symptom of a larger problem," said Congresswoman [#23]_________. "The disease is here, with the party of power in Washington. Now is the time to realize that the [#24]___________ Members of Congress who put America up for sale have neither the ability, nor the credibility, to lead us in a new direction. But the [#25]______________ Party can. And today, we are demanding the restoration of democracy itself to our government."

[#26]____________s today announced the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, a comprehensive government reform plan that will clean up and protect the government from the [#27]___________ culture of corruption and quid pro quo politics. The Act will reinvigorate Congressional ethics rules and institute broad-based lobbying reforms to ensure that the representatives of the people are operating in the people's interest, not the special interests. . . .

The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act offers the following reforms:

The [#28]___________ Reform: Fix the gift and travel rules that allowed [#29]__________ lobbyists to buy influence in Congress.

The [#30]___________ Reform: Increase transparency and accountability in government: holding Members of Congress accountable to ethics rules and allowing the public to see exactly what their elected representatives are doing in Washington.

The [#31]___________ Reform: Close the revolving door between government and K Street lobbying firms by strengthening the ban on lobbying by former Members of Congress and senior government officials after they leave to work in the private sector.

The cost of [#32]____________ corruption is felt by American families every day as they try to heat their homes and send their children to college. While seniors struggle with a confusing and poorly implemented [#33] ___________ program and middle-class families desperately try to pay higher bills with lower wages, special interests reap rewards and giveaways. [#34]_____________s created laws that provide billions to [#35]_________ companies already making record profits and a multibillion dollar slush fund for the [#36]___________ industry, and allow friends like [#37]___________ to receive no-bid contracts. At events throughout America today, [#38]_____________s pledged to clean up Washington so that the people's interests will come first.

"We are committed to immediate change to lead this country in a new direction, to put an end to [#39]___________ business as usual, and to make certain this nation's leaders serve the people's interests, not special interests," pledged [#40]_____________s while unveiling principles for reform. "With honest leadership and open government, America's leaders can once again focus on the urgent needs of the American people: real security overseas and at home, economic strength and educational excellence, affordable health care, energy independence, and retirement security."

Got your answers written down? OK, now check them against the actual words in this original press release issued January 18, 2006. (H/T: Big Government [check out the photo].)

And if you want to see the future of America under those who are making the promises quoted above, just watch this video. It shows their cumulative accomplishments in a single American city, which has been (since 1962!) under continuous Democratic leadership -- in conjunction with the unions, which have helped keep that leadership in power during that whole time. Promises, promises, promises: how many times will the American public play Charley Brown to the Democrats' Lucy?