Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fiddling While Rome Burns

No one in the media is saying it, so I will: The people in Washington are unfit to rule this great country.

No one is speaking out about the absolute and utter cluelessness of those in Washington.  No one.

The Democrats are the drunken sailors, wanting simply to have more taxes so they can spend even more. They cannot even get their minds around what they are spending, because they (the Senate, that is) have not proposed a budget, or responded to the budgets proposed by the House, for four straight years.

The Republicans are the hostage victims, suffering from "the Stockholm syndrome." All they can do is try to figure out ways in which they can please the Democrats and the Democrat-controlled media, and pass "a few little tax increases" in exchange for promised spending cuts that never materialize.

The President is a poseur. He has no clue what the country needs. He remains completely aloof from any initiatives that might move it in the right direction, and thinks that he can look "presidential" in the process. We might as well have an empty Coke bottle in the White House.

The freshmen in the House are silenced by the fear of retribution from the idiots that call themselves the "house leadership."

The Democrats in the House are in lockstep, through their senile "leader" Nancy Pelosi, with the Democrats in the Senate, under "Do-Nothing" Harry Reid -- i.e., "Do nothing, and let the Republicans take all the blame." ("And above all, never, ever pass a budget.")

The Secretary of the Treasury can only cry "Wolf! Wolf! We're hitting the spending ceiling!" so many times. Moreover, he's a lame duck, and for Obama to have delegated the "negotiations" to him shows what a farce this all is.

How can there even be a "spending ceiling" when there is no spending budget? Without a budget, what good is a spending ceiling -- what meaning does the term even have?

Why do these idiots continue to draw their salaries? What have they done in the past four years to earn them?

We need a new Constitutional Convention, and fast. Congress is a lost cause, so it will have to be called by the State legislatures (a minimum of two-thirds, or thirty-four States, will be necessary). No one currently holding a political or a party office should be allowed to be a delegate. They are the problem, not the solution.

Now, before everyone runs off and hollers "He's scrapping our Constitution!" -- hold on. Article V of our Constitution allows a Convention to be called for the purpose of proposing Amendments to it, and not for rewriting it totally. (Though once it gets going, who knows? The original Convention of 1787, remember, was called to "amend" the Articles of Confederation. I'm fine with whatever a properly called Convention decides is best to do.)

What needs amending? The qualifications of those who can vote for and hold federal offices, to begin with: namely, if you are taking more money from the government than you are paying in taxes, then you cannot vote or run for office, no matter how good the reason. Period. People who are happily accepting and spending other peoples' money should have no voice in how those other peoples' money should get spent.

Moreover, all current legislators and executive office holders should be permanently banned from ever holding a federal office again. Clean the whole house, I say, and start over. We certainly could not do worse, and we most likely will do far better.

Make the "power to coin money" (Art. I, Sec. 8) mean what it says. Let all the current officeholders receive their generous pensions in the current paper currency -- but forbid the printing of any more, and let the present stock of paper currency gradually disintegrate into dust and ashes. Define a new dollar coin based on the price the U. S. Mint is currently selling them for in paper currency, and let the coins establish their own exchange value for goods and services after that.

That would be a good start, and I'm sure others can easily come up with more.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Further Considerations on the Holy Family Chronology

These past days of Christmas, we have been reviewing various kinds of historical and scientific evidence in order to hone in on the date of Christ's birth. The first post dealt with the evidence of Herod's death. This establishes what historians call a terminus ad quem -- a date before which Christ must have been born, because we know that Herod was alive at Jesus' birth (and for some time afterwards, since he ordered the death of all children born in Bethlehem during the previous two years). Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, includes one key piece of evidence in his account of Herod's last days: he states that a lunar eclipse occurred shortly before Herod died. We saw that combining the evidence of Josephus with the astronomical record of lunar eclipses in the last B.C. years (scroll down to the very bottom; NASA's computer numbering counts the year 1 B.C. as "0000") gave the best result for Herod's death as occurring in January of 1 B.C (according to Jewish tradition, Herod died on 2 Shebat, or January 26 of that year), following an eclipse on January 12. (The eclipse dates given in the article on Herod just linked are in error, and should be disregarded in favor of the dates shown in the previous link.)

Now in addition to those considerations, there was another lunar eclipse that occurred in 1 B.C. -- but eleven months later, on December 29. The argument for this latter eclipse turns upon the fact that it would have been much more visible to people in Palestine, because the eclipse became visible shortly after sunset, while on January 12 the moon's umbral phase did not even begin until six hours after sunset (see this article for details).

As the article by John Pratt just linked points out, the December eclipse also allows for a better fit with the events Josephus records as occurring after Herod's death. How does it work, however, in relation to my second post last December, which discussed how the earliest Christians all converged upon a date for the nativity between 3 and 2 B.C.?

The point at issue here turns on the subtleties in the account of the visit by the wise men (magi, or court astronomers) in Matthew, chapter 2. To describe the infant Jesus, Matthew uses the Greek word paidion in verse 9, which is usually translated as "young child, little boy [or girl]." (See this link for other verses which use the word.)

The Greek word for "infant" or "baby", however is brephos -- as used in Luke 2:12, when the angel told the shepherds they were to look for "a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." It is a word used only by Luke in the Gospels; Matthew does not use it at all.

If Jesus was born most probably (as we shall see) in May or June of 2 B.C., and the Jewish Parthian astronomers (the "magi" -- see my third post of last year) arrived to worship and give him gifts in December of that year, then having Herod on his deathbed just a few weeks later is a bit of a push. Adding another eleven months to Herod's life allows for plenty of time for the Wise men to avoid Herod on their return trip, for Herod to hear about it later, and then to give the order for the Massacre of the Innocents. This, then, would fix the time of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, where they would have had to stay for only another seven months until Herod died.

Accordingly, I am revising my preferred chronology somewhat. It now looks like this:

May-June, 2 B.C.: Jesus born at Bethlehem, where Joseph has gone to be enrolled in an empire-wide tribute to Augustus' rule.

June 17, 2 B.C.: "Star of Bethlehem" super-conjunction of Jupiter and Venus observed throughout the East; the Jewish astronomers at the Parthian court put this phenomenon together with Jupiter's earlier conjunctions and conclude that a new King of the Jews has been born to their west, in Judea. They make preparations and start on a journey to worship him.

December 25, 2 B.C.: As Jupiter comes to a standstill over Bethlehem in the skies to the south of Jerusalem, the wise men, having visited Herod in his palace, find their way to the Christ child, who is now about six or seven months old (no longer a brephos). Joseph and Mary have in the meantime moved from the stable where Jesus was born, and found lodging in a house (Mt. 2:11 -- oikia).

January-February, 1 B.C.: The court astronomers quietly begin their return to Parthia, avoiding any meeting with Herod (who by this time of year has probably gone to the mineral baths, on the Dead Sea).

April-May, 1 B.C.: Herod learns he has been tricked, and that the wise men are long gone. Joseph, warned in a dream, has fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Based on what the astronomers had told him earlier about the time of Jesus' birth, and allowing for their possibly mistaking the time of conception (see my post next week on this) as the date of birth, Herod orders the massacre of all children in Bethlehem born within the preceding two years.

December 29, 1 B.C.: Herod puts to death a Jewish rabbi and his pupils by burning them alive (they had offended him by pulling down the graven image of an eagle which he had ordered erected on the Holy Temple). That night, everyone sees a blood-red lunar eclipse.

January, 1 A.D.: Herod falls ill, and despite numerous attempts at a cure, dies on the 26th of the month (Shebat 2).

February-March, 1 A.D.: Post-mortem ceremonies take place in Judea to mark Herod's passing; Archilaus assumes the throne after the Passover on March 26 of that year.

April-May, 1 A.D.: Joseph is told he may return from Egypt, because Herod is dead. He does not return to Judea, however, because Archilaus is just as cruel and arbitrary as his father was (Mt 2:22). So he takes his family to Nazareth, where Jesus turns two years old.

Still to be placed in this chronology are the events in the heavens which preceded the birth of Jesus, and which heralded the Annunciation and Conception. I shall take those up in my next (and last) post.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Scientific Evidence for the Virgin Birth of Jesus

[For Christmas Day this year, I am interrupting the series of posts on dating the Nativity to repost this article concerning some astonishing -- and still not widely known -- scientific evidence which, after the lapse of twenty centuries, provides strong confirmation of the Bible's account of Jesus having been born of a virgin. Tomorrow, I will return with the next post in the Nativity series, and conclude it on Thursday.]

A little over three years ago I put up this post to discuss Frank Tipler's argument, using available scientific evidence, for the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ (from chapter VII of his book, The Physics of Christianity). This Christmas, I want to examine in greater detail the evidence he presents -- in particular, the genetic evidence derived from DNA analysis of blood samples taken from the Shroud of Turin and the Sudarium of Oviedo -- in the hopes that someone more familiar with this branch of molecular biology might pick it up, and either comment on it, take it further, or even (if possible) refute it.

[UPDATE 12/25/2010: A word to my readers: I am well aware of the scorn and ridicule that has been heaped upon Frank Tipler and his theories (here is just one such example). But it is far easier to denigrate than to engage. As you read the post that follows, I would ask that you keep the bigger picture in mind: We have two ancient artefacts, thousands of years old, each with its own independent history -- yet each of which has matching AB-type bloodstains, the source of which tradition assigns to the same person, who was unquestionably of the male gender. How does it turn out, after a scientific analysis possible only in the late twentieth century, that the stains on both cloths lack a key genetic identifier for maleness? That is the question I wish responsible people would address.]

First, some background: the Shroud of Turin, of course, is the name given to what traditionally has been considered as the linen burial cloth in which, as the Gospels all report, the women who prepared Jesus for burial wrapped His body. Its provenance and history are greatly in dispute, a dispute which was heightened by a radiocarbon analysis of a portion of the cloth done in 1988, which dated its origin to no earlier than the 13th century. However, evidence since that well-publicized test has accumulated to cast those results into doubt, and to validate the Shroud's origin as genuine (see the details discussed in this earlier post).

The Sudarium of Oviedo is the name given to the cloth which tradition assigns as the face cloth placed over Jesus' head when he was taken down from the cross, and which was found in the tomb, rolled up and separate from the other linens, after His resurrection (Jn 20:7). (It is not to be confused with the Veil of Veronica, another relic of the crucifixion, which was originally kept at St. Peter's, but is now at the Abbey of Monoppello, high in the Apennines.) The Sudarium's history is entirely different from that of the Shroud's. Its location in Oviedo has been documented since the eighth century; it was in Toledo for about eighty years before that.

Aged, brown blood stains have been described on both cloths for centuries, but actually documented to be human blood (type AB) only with the advanced analysis techniques of the twentieth century. And a recent, in-depth study of the Sudarium done in 1998 (the first ever performed, in contrast to the numerous advanced tests on the Shroud) confirms that the blood stains on each cloth match in placement, blood type, and pattern of spread, along with numerous other correspondences (such as pollen indigenous to Jerusalem) between the two cloths. If the two cloths at one time covered the head, the face and (for the Shroud) the body of the same person, then obviously the 1988 radiocarbon dating of the Shroud was thrown off due to some error in the sampling process.

If a match between the blood stains could be established by forensic analysis of their surviving DNA, then one could feel confident (a) of the Shroud's having a much greater age, and (b) of the absence of fraud or artifice in the creation of the stains and images on each cloth. And this is where Frank Tipler's book referenced above proved most interesting. For in the course of his investigations, he learned that a highly qualified team of researchers from Genoa, Italy -- including two molecular biologists who had invented the standard test for sex determination, had performed DNA analysis on the stains of both the Shroud and the Sudarium in 1995.

However, their results had been published not in a standard scientific journal, available easily to all, but only in an obscure journal in Italian devoted entirely to studies about the Shroud. As Prof. Tipler noted:
Furthermore, only the raw data were published. That is, the Genoa team published black-and-white Xerox copies of the computer output of the DNA analyzer. This is never, never done. Always, the data are presented in a neat table or figure, and they are accompanied by a discussion of their significance. The Genoa team made no effort to interpret their data. . . .
Prof. Tipler, in contrast, had no reluctance in interpreting the data -- that is, once it was arranged in standard tabular form, according to the number of base pairs in the amplicons on the agarose gel which resulted from a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) involving segments of the sample DNA. Now, let me provide a little more background, so those unfamiliar with the procedures of forensic DNA analysis can make sense of that last sentence.

The technique of PCR was developed in 1983 by Kary Mullis, whose TED talk I featured earlier. The idea simply popped into his head one night as he was driving to his vacation cabin in northern California; he tried it, and the results surpassed all his expectations. The technique has been the foundation stone of DNA analysis ever since. Essentially, what it does, given a very small sample of DNA to begin with, is to make millions or even billions of copies of the sample in a "chain reaction" taking about three hours, so that there is enough ending material to analyze with standard laboratory techniques, including chromatography and gel electrophoresis. (Here is an excellent illustrated guide to the whole process.)

The way it works is by first heating the DNA samples to break the two strands of the double helix apart (this is called "DNA denaturation", or "DNA melting"). Once the strands have been separated, they are cooled down and put into a mix of DNA primers (short strands of DNA chosen for their complementarity with the sample being tested) and DNA polymerase -- a magic enzyme which, given a primer, goes to work and replicates the strands of the samples exactly. By successive heatings and coolings, more and more copies of the sample are created, separated into single strands, cooled, and then duplicated again, and again, and again, with the number of DNA copies roughly doubling each time -- hence the "chain reaction."

In running a PCR analysis on their samples from the Shroud and the Sudarion, the Italian researchers included a set of highly particular DNA primers generated from the gene for amelogenin, which plays a role in the building of tooth enamel. This gene appears on both the X- and Y-chromosomes in humans, but in distinctive forms: the allele (gene variant) on the X-chromosome is six base-pairs shorter than the allele on the Y-chromosome. ("Base pairs" are the pairings between the four fundamental nucleotides, or building blocks, of DNA.) And this very slight difference can be used to determine whether any given DNA sample comes from a male or a female, as a result. (Here is a link to a diagram of the genetic code for amelogenin, which shows precisely where the missing base pairs on the X-version differ from the Y-version; note that there are other slight differences between their codes, as well.)

Because of the difference in their respective lengths, the two alleles will show up at different places when the analysis is run on the results of the PCR amplifications (these are the amplicons I mentioned earlier) of the original sample. (In order to understand fully how the analysis produces its results, I highly recommend that those who have the time run through this interactive simulation of the process of gel electrophoresis in the lab.)

The results from female DNA will have only one band of the shorter base-pair length, while the results from male DNA will have two bands, one of the shorter, X-chromosome length, and the other from the longer, Y-chromosome variant of amelogenin. This was the DNA test for gender which was developed by two expert members of the 1995 Italian research team, as mentioned earlier.

The Italian team knew what they were doing. They took steps to eliminate "DNA noise" from contamination of the samples which might have built up from handling of the cloths by various people over the years. Even so, they apparently could not trust the results they ended up with, after all their careful analysis: the genetic signature of both samples, the one from the Shroud, the other from the Sudarium, showed only one band -- for the shorter (106 base-pairs), X-chromosome variant of amelogenin. (Depending on the length of the gene segment used as a primer for the PCR analysis, the X-allele of amelogenin will have either 106, or 212, base pairs, or "bp" -- see the diagram again for a depiction of the different segments used as primers in the test. The extra six base pairs for the Y-allele of amelogenin results in either 112 bp or 224 bp, depending again on the primer that is used for the test.)

With the foregoing as background, we are now ready to appreciate the results of the analysis by the Italian team, as reproduced by Professor Tipler in his book. Here are the results in tabular form, as he arranged them -- according to increasing base-pair length (click on the image to enlarge):

Professor Tipler does not elaborate on this tabular layout, and I have had to deduce, from my earlier experiences with forensic DNA analysis in court, just what the individual columns show. (If I err in any respect in what follows, I trust a knowledgeable commentator will correct me.) The left-hand column shows the index-mark, varying by time of retention, where the band in question appears in the results; in general, a higher index number means a longer retention time, because the segments with the greatest number of base pairs move slowest through the gel. The second column shows the average number of base pairs in that particular band, to a specified tolerance determined by the analysis software. The third column shows the height (intensity) of the band in question, which is proportionate to the amount of that particular allele in the amplified test sample; the total area of the band given in the fourth column also varies proportionately with the intensity. Finally, the number in the fifth column relates to the particular scan of the data run by the computer analyzer.

It is the numbers in the second column with which we are most interested. Both the analysis of the Shroud sample and of the Sudarium sample show results within the range expected for the 106 bp allele of amelogenin: 107.28 for the Shroud, and 105.27 for the Sudarium. (The variation of 1 in either direction from the specific bp number is due to a phenomenon called stutter which can occur during the PCR process -- see the article linked earlier for a more detailed explanation.) But there are no corresponding bands appearing in the 112 bp (+/- 1) range of the data.

This would ordinarily be the genetic signature of a female, with two X-chromosomes, and undoubtedly accounts in part for the reluctance of the Italian researchers to explain or comment on their results. With all of the precautions they took against contamination of the blood samples, how could the Y-allele of amelogenin have completely vanished from both samples, independently, over the years?

As Professor Tipler is at pains to point out, however, the presence of a single X-allele band, and the absence of any Y-allele band, is also consistent with another conclusion: that the person whose blood stained both cloths was that most rare of humans, an XX-male:
I propose that Jesus was a special type of XX male, a type that is quite rare in humans but extensively studied.17 Approximately 1 out of every 20,000 human males is an XX male. Such males are normal in behavior and intelligence but have smaller teeth, shorter stature, and smaller testes than normal males. They are usually identified as XX males because they cannot have children and ask doctors to cure the infertility. Normal males are XY, but there are only twenty-eight genes on the Y chromosome, as opposed to thousands on the X chromosome. Of these twenty-eight genes, fifteen are unique to the Y chromosome and thirteen have counterparts on the X chromosome.18 The genes with counterparts on both the X and the Y chromosomes are called homologous genes. An XX male results when a single key gene for maleness on the Y chromosome (the SRY gene) is inserted into an X chromosome. One possibility is that all (or at least many) of the Y chromosome genes were inserted into one of Mary's X chromosomes and that, in her, one of the standard mechanisms used to tum off genes was active on these inserted Y genes. (There is an RNA process that can tum off an entire X chromosome. This is the most elegant turnoff mechanism.) Jesus would then have resulted when one of Mary's egg cells started to divide before it became haploid and with the Y genes activated (and, of course, with the extra X genes deactivated).
17 Chapelle, Albert de la. 1981. "The Etiology of Maleness in XX Men." Human Genetics 58: 105-116; Guellean, Georges. et al. 1984. "Human XX Males with Y Single-Copy DNA Fragments." Nature 307: 172-73; Page, David C., et al. 1985. "Chromosome-Specific DNA in Related Human XX Males." Nature 315: 224-26; Andersson. Mea. et al. 1986. "Chromosome Y-Specific DNA Is Transferred to the Short Arm of the X Chromosome in Human XX Males." Science 233:786-88; Petit, Christine, et al. 1987. "An Abnormal Terminal X -Y Interchange Accounts for Most but Not All Cases of Human XX Maleness." Cell 49:595-602; Chapelle, Albert de la, et al. 1988. "Invited Editorial: The Complicated Issue of Human Sex Determination." American Journal of Human Genetics 43:1-3.

18 Jegalian, Karin, and Bruce T. Lahn. 2001. "Why the Y Is So Weird." Scientific American, February, 56-61.
Because the full-body image we have from the shroud does not match the parameter of the usual type of XX-male (the 1-in-20,000 example mentioned in the text, in which only the SRY gene is inserted in the X-chromosome, with a resulting smaller stature than other males), Prof. Tipler believes that Jesus may have been an even rarer exemplar -- indeed, a one-time-only species -- of XX-maleness, in which most, if not all, of the fifteen Y-specific genes were inserted into the X-chromosome:
Such a virgin birth would be improbable. If the measured probability that a single Y gene is inserted into an X chromosome is 1 in 20,000, then the probability that all Y genes are inserted into an X chromosome is 1/20,000 raised to the 28th power, the power corresponding to the number of Y genes. (Assuming that the insertion of each Y gene has equal probability and that these insertions are independent.) There have been only about 100 billion humans born since behaviorally modern Homo sapiens evolved, between 55,000 and 80,000 years ago. . . . Thus, the virgin birth of such an XX male would be unique in human history even if there were only two such Y genes inserted into an X chromosome. (I assume an upper bound to the rate of virgin birth is 1/300. Then the probability of a virgin birth of a male with 2 Y genes is 1/[300][20,000][20,000] = 1/120 billion.)
How could it be determined if Jesus were in fact such a unique individual? Unfortunately, the tests run by the Italians in 1993 did not search for any Y-genes other than the Y-allele for amelogenin. (Their black-and-white reproduction of their computer data also unfortunately left out the information from the different dye colorings, which would have enabled one to determine just how many different alleles were present, and the degree to which any contamination might have occurred. As it is, their data from just the Shroud show fourteen different alleles present in addition to that from the X-variant of amelogenin, where one would expect at most eight from the four other specific genes for which they tested. Without more data, it is simply not possible to account for the extra six which they show.) Prof. Tipler recommends that more modern tests be conducted on the stains on the two cloths, which could help to determine whether the DNA contains more than just one Y-specific gene, or only one, or two, and could also help to pinpoint any possible sources of contamination. Such tests could moreover dramatically enhance the likelihood that the blood on the separate cloths is from one and the same genetic source. (As it is, the data shows they share three specific alleles already.)

What is one to conclude from all of this? (As I say, I hope that those who are more expert in these subjects will be stimulated to comment, or to write about it on their own blogs.) The point, I emphasize again, is not that science can offer any absolute "proof" or "disproof" of the Virgin Birth. (How God works His miracles will never be fully comprehensible to mortal understanding.) Instead, what fascinates in this investigation of artefacts which are in all likelihood at least two thousand years old is that they hold up so remarkably well to ever closer scrutiny and more extensive examination. There is plenty of room for skeptics to disagree, and for believers to find encouragement. With an open and contrite spirit, not being stubborn or willfully contrary, each individual must form his or her own conclusions, based on what is at hand at the moment. Such is the essence of the grace which God bestows upon us.

A Merry Christmas to all!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Look What Happened on Dec. 24 in 2 B.C.

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:
2:6 ‘And 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. 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.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ancient Evidence for the Date of the Nativity (pace, Pope Benedict)

[N.B.: This series of posts, of which the following is the second in the series, is a republication for newer readers of the series I did on this topic in 2009. I have updated the posts as necessary with more contemporary references.]

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. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas Redux: Dating Herod's Death

[N.B.: For the next five days, I will be repeating a series of posts on the Nativity which I published in 2009, so that newer readers may benefit from them. This the first post in the series.]

As we approach the Feast of the Nativity, I want to take up a topic which we are also addressing in our church forum: was there a real Star of Bethlehem, and if so, just what was it? Last year, I did some posts on some of the points in Prof. Frank Tipler's amazing book, The Physics of Christianity. (If the legal disputes of the Church ever give me more time, I hope to return to the book and continue where I left off.) One of the chapters I took note of, but did not blog about, was about his theory that the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova that occurred at just the right time in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy.

I mentioned this to one of my friends who sometimes comments here, and got back the immediate response: "Oh, no -- the Star was not a supernova. You need to get up on the latest findings -- let me send you a DVD about it." The DVD arrived, but it had to wait until I could get a free hour to watch it. When I did, I was astonished by how the astronomical research fit together. I began to do some research of my own, to find out why this theory of the Star was not better known.

What I found was the usual scholarly blockade -- several generations of Biblical scholars who circle the wagons around a consensus formed more than a century ago based on the best evidence then available, and who resist anyone who rejects the consensus, or who undermines it with arguments based on new evidence. Thus it has ever been in academia. However, readers of this blog already know that no outdated consensus will form any stumbling block to where the truth may take us. So I have decided, in this series of posts leading up to December 25, to walk through the controversy, to examine the consensus and the problems with it, and to show how the new evidence makes a better fit with both what we know of Jewish chronology and custom in first-century-B.C. Palestine.

Solving the problem of the Star of Bethlehem requires that we arrive at a decision on the reign of Herod the Great. We know from Matthew's second chapter that Herod was alive when Jesus was born, because Matthew reports that Herod gave orders, in an attempt to prevent the usurpation of his throne by a new King of the Jews, to slay all the male children in Bethlehem of age two years or less. (Whether or not the order is an historical fact is much debated, because there are no other accounts which have survived of it. Then again, as another scholar has pointed out, given the population of Bethlehem in the years just before the Christian era, and applying standard demographics to that figure, there could have been at most about two dozen infants who met the criteria.) Shortly after this, it is reported that Herod himself died (while the Holy Family was in Egypt). From this, therefore, we know that Jesus was born a year or more before Herod died.

The date of Herod's death thus fixes a terminus ad quem -- a date certain before which Jesus must have been born. But when did Herod die? Ah, now that is the question. All historians of Herod's reign pretty much have to rely on the first century Jewish historian Josephus for that information. Josephus took part in the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in A.D. 66, but was captured by the Romans shortly afterward. He rose to sudden favor in the Roman camp when a prediction he made came true in A.D. 69 that the Roman general leading the siege against Jerusalem, Vespasian, would become the emperor of Rome. He observed the final fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 from the Roman lines, and then was granted a palace in Rome by a grateful Vespasian. There he began to translate into Greek an earlier account he had written (in Aramaic) of the "Jewish wars" he had just experienced. His narrative began with the events of 170 B.C., when Antiochus Epiphanes took Jerusalem by force. After relating the events which are described in the Maccabean books of the Apocrypha, he took up briefly the life and reign of Herod before focusing on the chain of events that led to Jerusalem's downfall.

His first-person account, shaded to make Vespasian more of a hero than he was, proved very popular in Rome, and Josephus flattered himself into thinking that there was a demand for a comprehensive history of the Jewish people, from the creation of the world to A.D. 66 -- where his Jewish Wars took over. The result, called the Jewish Antiquities in twenty volumes, included a second account of the life and reign of Herod.

The two accounts, written perhaps fifteen to twenty years apart, are maddeningly inconsistent in details of dates. (The inconsistencies were exacerbated by the error of a sixteenth-century copyist in writing "20" for what Josephus had written as "22" in dating the death of Herod's son -- an error that unfortunately was carried over into all the major editions of Josephus currently in print.) For example, in the Jewish Wars, Josephus states that Herod began work on rebuilding the Temple at Jerusalem in "the fifteenth year of his reign", while in the Antiquities Josephus asserts that the work on the Temple began in Herod's eighteenth year. But in the Antiquities (and not in the Wars), Josephus gives one objective clue to the date of Herod's death: he notes that a lunar eclipse occurred shortly beforehand, and that Herod's funeral took place before Passover.

Now this is a fact that astronomically determines which years are eligible, and which are not. All of the lunar eclipses which occurred just before A.D. 1 may now be calculated with precision. Here is a table of the ones that occurred between the years 5 and 1 B.C.:

Date/(Type of Eclipse)/Days before Passover

March 23, 5 B.C. (total) 29 days

September 15, 5 B.C. (total) 7 months

March 13, 4 B.C. (partial) 29 days

January 10, 1 B.C. (total) 92 days

Most scholars have rejected the dates in 5 B.C., because of the inability to fit what Josephus elsewhere says were thirty-seven years of Herod's rule, beginning in 40 or 39 B.C. when the Roman senate confirmed him as King, into a reign that ended in that year. But 4 B.C. just fits, if one assumes that he was confirmed in 40 B.C. (Josephus is again ambiguous in giving us the markers for the Senate's proclamation), not 39, and if one counts both the first and the last year as part of the total of thirty-seven (yielding a reign of actually thirty-six years, according to normal methods of counting).

The same majority of scholars rejects the date of 1 B.C. as being too late to fit with Josephus' other data. However, that date does fit remarkably well with Josephus' statement that Herod was about seventy years old when he died, and that he was 25 years old when his father named him Governor of Galilee (in 47 B.C.). But the main difference between these two candidates -- 4 B.C. and 1 B.C. -- lies in the number of days between the eclipse and the Passover in that year.

In 4 B.C., there were just 29 days; in 1 B.C. there were 92 days. Now look at all of the events which Josephus says surrounded Herod's death, beginning with the lunar eclipse:

1. The day before the eclipse (Josephus reports), Herod had two celebrated rabbis burned alive for ordering their students to remove a golden eagle he had erected over the Temple's eastern gate. 

2. The day after the eclipse, Herod's health worsened, and after his physicians tried many remedies to no avail, he decided to leave Jericho and go to bathe in the mineral waters at Calirrhoe, east of the Dead Sea.

3. The waters having also failed to improve his health, Herod then returned to Jericho.

4. On his return, and seeing that his death was imminent, Herod formed a monstrous plan to give the Jewish people no cause to celebrate after he was dead: he had the most prominent elders of the Jews summoned to Jericho from all over the country. When they arrived, he gave orders that they were to wait for him in the arena there. He planned to confine them in the arena until his death, and then have them all massacred -- so that Judea would really have something to bewail and grieve about. (Fortunately, Herod's son Archelaus refused to carry out his orders.)

5. The elders in due course arrived, and had just been confined to the arena, when news arrived from Rome that Herod had permission to execute yet another of his sons, Antipater, for having allegedly poisoned his uncle Pheroras (Herod's brother), and engaged in other treasonous acts. (In giving his imperial permission, Augustus is supposed to have remarked that it was safer to be a pig on Herod's farm than it was to be a member of his family.) Herod had the execution take place immediately.

6. Five days after executing his son, Herod himself died.

7. Herod had arranged for a slow and massive funeral procession to carry his bier from Jericho to his final resting place at Herodium, some twenty-three miles away. First all the crown jewels had to be brought from Herod's palace in Jerusalem, and spices to anoint the body (carried by some 500 slaves) assembled. Then the procession, accompanied by soldiers, notables and drummers, slowly marched off. It is estimated it would have taken at least a week to reach its destination.

8. After the funeral, the customary Jewish seven-day period of mourning was observed. Then there was a feast, following which Herod's son Archelaus (with whom Herod had begun to share power some years earlier) assumed the kingship and made some immediate promotions in the military.

9. Finally, after all these events, Josephus reports that the Passover festival came, after which Archelaus left for Rome to have his authority confirmed by the Emperor Augustus.

There is simply not time enough for all of the events which Josephus relates to have occurred in the twenty-nine days between March 13, 4 B.C. and Passover in that same year. In a recent study by Professor Andrew E. Steinmann, the author estimates that allowing for the shortest possible time for each event, a minimum of 41 days would have elapsed after the eclipse, and that allowing 92 days for all the events to have occurred would be much more reasonable.

Thus, Professor Steinmann concludes, against the majority consensus of all the scholars, that Herod most probably died in 1 B.C., and not in 4 B.C. as has always been assumed. He adduces many more arguments to support his conclusion in his paper; I have summarized here only his major argument.

The clincher, in my view, that proves Herod died in 1 B.C. consists of the astronomical events which modern computers can show occurred in the skies over Babylon and Jerusalem in the years 3-2 B.C., and which bear out in wonderful detail the story of the magi which Matthew relates in chapter 2 of his Gospel. There are no comparable events to be found in the same skies in the years before 4 B.C. -- unless one goes all the way back to 7 B.C., when a rare triple conjunction occurred between Jupiter and Saturn. However, nothing else of moment could be observed in the months before or afterward (unlike the events in 3-2 B.C., which I shall describe in a later post), and the behavior of the triple conjunction in 7 B.C. does not provide as close a match to the description of the star of Bethlehem in Matthew chapter 2.

Thus if we throw out the consensus, and look at the evidence with fresh eyes, it becomes possible to fix the date of Jesus' birth with astonishing precision. And that will be the topic for my Christmas post. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

God Is Where He's Always Been: Acting in Love to Overcome Men's Evil

People who mindlessly ask: "Where is God when tragedies like that of Newtown, Connecticut happen?" need to re-examine the premises of their question.

First of all, they are assuming that God must not have been there (on the scene), or else He could have prevented its happening.

But of course He was there -- He is omnipresent God, and not the slightest blade of grass, or hair on your head, escapes His glance.

"But if God is omnipresent," you respond, "why does He allow such awful things to happen?"

Again, the question assumes, as we lawyers are accustomed to say, "facts not in evidence."

God is certainly omnipresent, so God was certainly at the scene of the Newtown shootings. And God is also certainly omnipotent, so that He could have intervened to strike the shooter dead, or to deflect the shots, before any bullets from the shooter's guns took innocent lives. That much, at least, is not open to question.

But when the question is asked: "Why did God allow this tragedy to happen?" -- well, then, we are on different ground. For God allows everything to happen, just as it has been "preordained" to happen. For it is a truism to observe that if God "allows" something to happen, then that something was "preordained" from God's omnipresent point of view.

"Allowing" something to happen implies that "not allowing" it was also an option. But that observation tells us nothing about the choices which God had. Perhaps "allowing" this tragedy to happen meant avoiding a still worse tragedy elsewhere, and at some other time -- and only God knows (and could know) that.

(Note: I use the scare quotes to emphasize God's gift to us of free will, to make what indeed are our own choices. That God "allows" us those choices does not mean He does not know what choices we will make, or that He has to wait for us to make them before He can deal with their consequences.)

We mere (and fallen) mortals, limited in both the time and the space that we occupy with our presence, are in no position to make celestial judgments from an omnipresent, omnipotent perspective.  Everything we do is centered around the "we / us" by which we define ourselves. And unlike God, we cannot on most occasions see clearly the future consequences of our present choices.

God, on the other hand, makes billions and trillions of "choices" every day -- among them being who shall die on any given day. Newtown is a human tragedy because so many of those who had to die had barely begun to live. But many more children of their same age also died on that day, as well -- their deaths just did not make the news. Yet (unlike us, again) God knew about each and every one of them.

Therefore, do not seek to question where "God was" in Newtown. The question is impertinent and tries to put man on the same level as God. God indeed was there (and everywhere), and was mediating the lives of the innocent and the guilty through His only Son, Jesus Christ.

Those who would use this tragedy to urge the passing of more gun laws are committing a similar sin of human pride: they conceive that more human control of the means of force will result in less deaths. Humans, as already noted, are fallen -- and that means any attempt by fallen humans to control their peers is a recipe for failure.

Here is a powerful argument, stated more than five years ago, which expresses this point better than any I have currently read (H/T: Ace of Spades):
Human beings only have two ways to deal with one another: reason and force. If you want me to do something for you, you have a choice of either convincing me via argument, or force me to do your bidding under threat of force. Every human interaction falls into one of those two categories, without exception. Reason or force, that’s it. 
In a truly moral and civilized society, people exclusively interact through persuasion. Force has no place as a valid method of social interaction, and the only thing that removes force from the menu is the personal firearm, as paradoxical as it may sound to some. 
When I carry a gun, you cannot deal with me by force. You have to use reason and try to persuade me, because I have a way to negate your threat or employment of force. The gun is the only personal weapon that puts a 100-pound woman on equal footing with a 220-pound mugger, a 75-year old retiree on equal footing with a 19-year old gangbanger, and a single gay guy on equal footing with a carload of drunk guys with baseball bats. The gun removes the disparity in physical strength, size, or numbers between a potential attacker and a defender. 
There are plenty of people who consider the gun as the source of bad force equations. These are the people who think that we’d be more civilized if all guns were removed from society, because a firearm makes it easier for a mugger to do his job. That, of course, is only true if the mugger’s potential victims are mostly disarmed either by choice or by legislative fiat–it has no validity when most of a mugger’s potential marks are armed. People who argue for the banning of arms ask for automatic rule by the young, the strong, and the many, and that’s the exact opposite of a civilized society. A mugger, even an armed one, can only make a successful living in a society where the state has granted him a force monopoly.
When I carry a gun, I don’t do so because I am looking for a fight, but because I’m looking to be left alone. The gun at my side means that I cannot be forced, only persuaded. I don’t carry it because I’m afraid, but because it enables me to be unafraid. It doesn’t limit the actions of those who would interact with me through reason, only the actions of those who would do so by force. It removes force from the equation…and that’s why carrying a gun is a civilized act.
The author speaks common sense. Civilization is based on reason, and on the controlled use of force as guided by reason. Civilization based solely on force is "might makes right." More gun laws will simply bring back the dark ages, when that was the rule.

God gave man his reason, but man abuses it badly. On the one side, he thinks he can use it to protect the weak, while in reality he only makes the criminals (the ones who do not use their God-given reason properly) stronger. And on the other side, man thinks his reason can compete with God on His own level.

With the psalmist, I ask: "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?"

Right now, after the tragedy of Newtown, quite a few of God's creatures are making fools of themselves.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

On Greed and Ignorance, i.e., Fiscal Cliffs

Ah, the "fiscal cliff."

It looms, portentously.

What is anybody doing about it?

Nothing -- see next Q and A.

When will we go over it?

We've already gone over it. Now the only thing to discuss is which rock(s) we will dash ourselves upon first.

How did we get to this point?

The short answer: Politicians are politicians -- what else did you expect them to be?

What do you mean by that?

I mean that we have abandoned this country's founding principles, and left our future to the politicians.

And just what is it about politicians that is bad for our future?

They always choose the short-term benefit over the long term. They choose whatever they judge will maximize their chances for re-election.

But why is the short-term outlook necessarily bad for us in the long run?

Think of rats on an eighteenth-century wooden ship at sea. In an effort to reach the grain in its hold, they have gnawed holes everywhere, including in the hull, and water is leaking in. But they have found their way to the grain. For the short term, they will not be hungry; but in the longer term, they will drown along with everyone else on board the ship.  The eighteenth-century rats are the equivalent to today's politicians.

And how do the politicians manage to get away with this?

Easy. They pass idiotic legislation to maximize their chances for re-election (think "earmarks," "subsidies," and "bailouts"). The fiscal effects of these laws then create a "debt limit crisis", as we approach the maximum amount we are allowed to borrow under the law, since we do not have enough revenues to finance the total level of their spending. Then they run about and scream: "Crisis! Fiscal cliff!" -- as though it were not all their fault in the first place. And then they vote to spend more money which the country does not have, and to raise the debt ceiling so it can borrow more, and life goes on as before.

But why does this scheme work? Why do not sensible people, who know that there is a limit to what one can borrow to spend, not bring the process to a halt?

Ah, now you are on to something.  The reason is what I call "the Curmudgeon's Corollary to the 'Tragedy of the Commons.'"

And what is the "Tragedy of the Commons"?

Check out this link for a simple explanation.

OK, I begin to see what you are talking about here. But what, specifically, is "the Curmudgeon's Corollary"?

It's really just an adaptation of a principle which has been known since Aristotle, and even earlier. The ancient Greek philosophers observed that democracies decay once they discover the power to distribute to all their citizens the wealth of the successful ones. The Curmudgeon's Corollary is more adapted to current times. It says: "The great majority of citizens will behave like rats on a sinking ship: they will see to their own gain and benefit first, even if it means that eventually everyone drowns."

But why can't people act differently? Why do they have to be greedy at others' expense?

You are seeing the results of what Christians call "man's fall from grace." Ordinary people simply cannot do otherwise, because everyone is fallen.

And does everyone bear responsibility?

Yes -- Republicans and Democrats; rich and poor; liberal and conservative. In the final analysis, they all act against their own long-term interests in order to benefit what they see as the short term.

But why, then, are the Democrats so popular just now, and the Republicans so unpopular, as we approach the "fiscal cliff" on December 31?  Aren't the Republicans more to blame for their unwillingness to compromise?

You mean: compromise on whether the ship sinks faster or slower? The reason is simple: Democrats are pursuing the shortest-term strategy of all: "Tax the rich, and our troubles will be over, because we will have even more money to spend. Those nasty Republicans just want to cut all your benefits, and let the rich keep their money."

And why is that exactly the "shortest-term strategy of all", rather than letting the rich stay rich?

Because you could confiscate, at a rate of 100%, all the wealth today in America, and keep the government operating on its current level of spending for only about nine months. And then what would you do, for more revenue? The Democrats have no plan for that; they say only: "Let's tax the rich more today, and worry about tomorrow later." That is a grasshopper philosophy, exactly as in Aesop's fable about "The Ant and the Grasshopper."

Are the Democrats, then, just appealing to class prejudice and envy?

You could be charitable, and put it that way. But what they are actually doing is far, far worse than that. 

And what is that?

They are making everyone think that Government alone will take care of them, and provide all the solutions. All they have to do is vote in favor of taxing the rich more than they are already taxed, and "Government" (i.e., the Democrats) will magically take care of the rest. The latest polls show that the vast majority of Americans are in favor of raising taxes on the wealthiest among us, while they are also against cutting any benefits that might affect them personally. Does that tell you anything?

Actually, yes, it does. It tells me that we have already gone over this "fiscal cliff."