Religion

The Sea of Galilee: receding waters of biblical lake

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A sharp drop in annual rainfall in the northern Galilee region over the past three years has caused the lake’s waters to recede.

On the shimmering Sea of Galilee, where the Christian gospels say Jesus walked on water, 150 Nigerian pilgrims aboard a river boat sing and dance to an African beat. Their pastor, Reverend Samuel Tunde Ogunmodede, said he and his congregation had come to the biblical lake to see what they had, until now, only read about in the scriptures. “We came here to seek the face of God, pray to God as he did in the time of the disciples. We will pray here so that he will do the same in our lives,” he said on board the boat. About one million tourists from abroad visit the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberias or Kinneret, each year, according to the Israeli tourism ministry.

Stretching about 65 sq miles (170 square km) from the foot of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the Sea of Galilee (actually a fresh-water lake) spills into the Jordan River, where Jesus is believed to have been baptised. On a crisp winter day, worshippers from Singapore, Nigeria and Germany perform their own baptism ceremonies in the waters. The gospels tell of Jesus walking on the lake to comfort and save disciples as their ship was foundering in a storm and miraculously producing huge catches of fish for their nets. But the Sea of Galilee may need a few more miracles these days. A sharp drop in annual rainfall in the northern Galilee region over the past three years has caused the lake’s waters to recede, according to Israel’s Water Authority. It is now at its lowest in five years.

Receding water levels means higher salt levels, which harm the eco-balance and could render the water unusable. In an effort to control the damage, only a 10th of the annual average quantity of water supply has been drawn from the lake this year, a water authority spokesman said. In a complex operation, salt water springs are found and their flow is diverted out of the lake. To better keep the eco-balance and maintain water quality, the lake is stocked with millions of fish every year. The Sea of Galilee has, in the past, provided up to a third of Israel’s water. Israel now relies on the more expensive methods of desalination and recycling for more than half its water supply.

Reuters

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Scientist Finally Read the Oldest Biblical Text Ever Found

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The charred lump of scroll sat in an archaeologist’s office, impossible to read without destroying it – until now.

Scientists have finally been able to read the oldest biblical text ever found.

The 2,000-year-old scroll has been in the hands of archaeologists for decades. But it hasn’t been possible to read it, since it was too dangerous to open the charred and brittle scroll.

Scientists have now been able to read it, using special imaging technology that can look into what’s inside. And it has found what was in there: the earliest evidence of a biblical text in its standardised form.

The passages, which come from the Book of Leviticus, show the first physical evidence of a long-held belief that the Hebrew Bible that’s in use today has is more than 2,000 years old.

The discovery was announced in an article in Science Advances written by researchers from Kentucky and Jerusalem. It described how the researchers used a tool called “virtual unwrapping”, which provides a 3D digital analysis of an X-ray scan.

By using that, it was the first time that researchers have been able to read an ancient scroll without actually opening it.

“You can’t imagine the joy in the lab,” said Pnina Shor of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who participated in the study.

The digital technology, funded by Google and the U.S. National Science Foundation, is slated to be released to the public as open source software by the end of next year.

Researchers hope to use the technology to peek inside other ancient documents too fragile to unwrap, like some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and papyrus scrolls carbonized in the Mt. Vesuvius volcano eruption in 79 CE. Researchers believe the technology could also be applied to the fields of forensics, intelligence, and antiquities conservation.

The biblical scroll examined in the study was first discovered by archaeologists in 1970 at Ein Gedi, the site of an ancient Jewish community near the Dead Sea. Inside the ancient synagogue’s ark, archaeologists found lumps of scroll fragments.

The synagogue was destroyed in an ancient fire, charring the scrolls. The dry climate of the area kept them preserved, but when archaeologists touched them, the scrolls would begin to disintegrate. So the charred logs were shelved for nearly half a century, with no one knowing what was written inside.

Last year, Yosef Porath, the archaeologist who excavated at Ein Gedi in 1970, walked into the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls preservation lab in Jerusalem with boxes of the charcoal chunks. The lab has been creating hi-resolution images of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest copies of biblical texts ever discovered, and he asked researchers to scan the burned scrolls.

“I looked at him and said, ‘you must be joking,”‘ said Shor, who heads the lab.

She agreed, and a number of burned scrolls were scanned using X-ray-based micro-computed tomography, a 3D version of the CT scans hospitals use to create images of internal body parts. The images were then sent to William Brent Seales, a researcher in the computer science department of the University of Kentucky. Only one of the scrolls could be deciphered.

Using the “virtual unwrapping” technology, he and his team painstakingly captured the three-dimensional shape of the scroll’s layers, using a digital triangulated surface mesh to make a virtual rendering of the parts they suspected contained text. They then searched for pixels that could signify ink made with a dense material like iron or lead. The researchers then used computer modeling to virtually flatten the scroll, to be able to read a few columns of text inside.

“Not only were you seeing writing, but it was readable,” said Seales. “At that point we were absolutely jubilant.”

The researchers say it is the first time a biblical scroll has been discovered in an ancient synagogue’s holy ark, where it would have been stored for prayers, and not in desert caves like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The discovery holds great significance for scholars’ understanding of the development of the Hebrew Bible, researchers say.

In ancient times, many versions of the Hebrew Bible circulated. The Dead Sea Scrolls, dating to as early as the 3rd century B.C., featured versions of the text that are radically different than today’s Hebrew Bible.

Scholars have believed the Hebrew Bible in its standard form first came about some 2,000 years ago, but never had physical proof, until now, according to the study. Previously the oldest known fragments of the modern biblical text dated back to the 8th century.

The text discovered in the charred Ein Gedi scroll is “100 percent identical” to the version of the Book of Leviticus that has been in use for centuries, said Dead Sea Scroll scholar Emmanuel Tov from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who participated in the study.

“This is quite amazing for us,” he said. “In 2,000 years, this text has not changed.”

Noam Mizrahi, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert at Tel Aviv University who did not participate in the study, called it a “very, very nice find.” He said the imaging technology holds great potential for more readings of unopened Dead Sea Scrolls.

“It’s not only what was found, but the promise of what else it can uncover, which is what will turn this into an exciting discovery,” Mizrahi said.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

Shroud of Turin ‘stained with blood from torture victim’, find researchers

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The Shroud of Turin is stained with the blood of a torture victim, scientists have claimed.

Analysis of the linen cloth, purportedly used to bury Jesus after his crucifixion, contains “nanoparticles” of blood which are not typical of that of a healthy person, according to researchers.

Institute of Crystallography researcher Elvio Carlino, one of the authors of the report, said the particles are conducive with someone having been through “great suffering”.

“Our results point out that at the nanoscale a scenario of violence is recorded in the funeral fabric,” authors wrote in the scientific article, published in PLOS One.

“The consistent bound of ferritin iron to creatinine occurs in human organism in case of a severe polytrauma.”

Researchers believe the particles show a “peculiar structure, size and distribution”, which corroborates the theory that it was used as a burial cloth.

They also believe it contradicts previous theories that the shroud was made in medieval times.

Professor Giulio Fanti, one of the author’s of the research, said: “The presence of these biological nanoparticles found during our experiments point to a violent death for the man wrapped in the Turin Shroud.”

The cloth’s authenticity is highly contentious and divides religious opinion.

Some Christians believe the fabric – which is kept in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin – is the burial shroud of Jesus of Nazereth, dating back over 2,000 years.

But previous scientific studies have suggested the cloth, which appears to be imprinted with the face of a man, may in fact be from the 13th or 14th century – centuries after Jesus is believed to have died.

One study found the cloth had been manufactured in India.

The research was published in US scientific journal PlosOne and is titled: “New Biological Evidence from Atomic Resolution Studies on the Turin Shroud.”

in independent.co.uk

Saint George Versus the Dragon

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Saint George is traditionally considered the patron saint of England. His legendary victory over the dragon is seen as symbolic of the power of the English people to subdue their powerful enemies. His red cross on a white background is the basis of the British Union Jack flag. In earlier years it was carried into battle as a standard. The image of George the dragon slayer has been used since the 1800s on English gold coins. However, none of the stories connected with this figure describe him as coming from the British Isles. The story reached England in the medieval period – the time of the Crusades. People were attracted to this tale of bravery and chivalry. In the course of time its foreign origins were forgotten and it began to be seen as an English tradition. It is not a coincidence that George has been the second most popular name given to English monarchs.

The George and the Dragon story

There are several versions of this story. Usually it is set in North Africa. One story recounts how the brave knight arrived in Libya after a very long and arduous trip by land and sea. Here he met a hermit who told him about a terrifying dragon that was terrifying the people of Libya. The dragon had an unpleasant habit of devouring young maidens. The problem the country faced was that all the young maidens had been eaten with the sole exception of the king’s daughter. It was her turn to be the dragon’s lunch tomorrow. The King of Egypt was offering his daughter in marriage to any brave knight willing to rid the land of this dragon.

This was exactly the kind of challenge George was searching for. He galloped off the valley where the beast lived just in time to see the princess of Egypt being led to this grisly death. He comforted her with the news that he was off to kill the dragon and she need not fear. True to his words he rode on to the cave where the dragon lived. The huge beast with a fifty foot long tail and a huge head was understandably furious at this intrusion on its territory. It came out of its cave roaring like thunder. George charged at the dragon and speared it but its scales were so thick his spear broke. George was dismounted but found refuge under a magical tree conveniently on hand for some emergencies. The tree’s magical powers shielded him against the dragon’s poison. When he had recovered from the failure of the first attack he went after the dragon again with his sword. The dragon doused him in poison and his armour fell apart. Everything was almost lost but George noticed just in time that there were no scales under the wings of the beast. He struck it under its wings with his sword and at last succeeded in dispatching the monster.

Interpretations

On the most basic level George and the dragon is an attractive fairy story. We learn about the triumph of good over evil in a manner that leaves no room for alternative interpretations. On a deeper level it is easy to detect in the persona of the dragon a symbolic representation of our fears of the unknown, or situations we perceive as very threatening. The dragon can be seen as almost insurmountable obstacle or approaching terror threatening our very existence. The conquest of the dragon shows that we have the abilities to overcome our most dreaded enemies with sufficient determination and courage. These ideas appeal to individuals. They also clearly held appeal for an island nation fearing invasion from its more powerful Continental neighbours.

If you want to connect the dragon slaying with some episode in early history, there is no evidence that Saint George is modelled on a person whom we know lived in a certain historical period. However, it is interesting to note that many cultures have stories featuring dragons. Some scholars suggest that one explanation for this maybe the survival of dinosaurs into a much later period than we used to believe. The theory has always been that dinosaurs died out before man came on the scene. These scholars postulate that early man might have seen dinosaurs and conceivably needed to defend himself against them. If this really was the case there may have been a real prototype for Saint George – an ancient warrior who fought and killed one of these prehistoric monsters. His exploits would have been talked and sung about for generations and so this story may have a germ of truth in its origins. More prosaically the stories of dragons may have been sparked by the discovery of dinosaur skeletons, which would certainly have the power to terrify a superstitious and uneducated farmer. In truth, we will probably never know.

By: Zoran Krdzic in newhistorian.com

 

Why the 25th December?

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Most Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on the 25th December. In the modern western world the date has taken on a significance far beyond its Christian origins. It is celebrated by people outside the religion as much as Christians themselves, and, depending on one’s outlook, is a time of year associated with the giving of gifts, spending time with loved ones, charity, goodwill, or rampant consumerism. But why is it celebrated on the 25th December, when the date of Jesus’ birthday is never mentioned in the Bible?

A combination of historical research and study of the Bible has led many historians and theologians to suggest that Jesus was probably born in either the Spring or Autumn. In the nativity story, Mary and Joseph are traveling to Bethlehem for a Roman census. The Jewish festival of Passover takes place in Spring, sometime around March or April. The festival celebrates Moses leading the Jews from Slavery in Egypt. Two millennia ago, thousands of Jews would descend on Jerusalem each year to celebrate the festival. It would have been an ideal time for the Romans to perform a census of the population, and could explain Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem (a short distance from Jerusalem).

In the autumn, around September or October, is the Jewish festival of Sukkot. It is a time when Jewish people remember their dependence on God during the forty years in the desert and coincides with the end of the harvest season. Again, the festival involved the Jewish population descending on Jerusalem, making it an ideal time for a Roman census, and explaining there being “no room at the inn” in the nativity story.

How the holiday came to be celebrated on the 25th December remains shrouded in mystery. The first two centuries of Christianity made no reference to when Christ was born, or a winter Christian holiday. Most researchers believe that the 25th December was chosen because it was around the time of a host of pagan festivals associated with the Winter Solstice.

The Romans paid tribute to the pagan God Saturn (the god of agriculture, among other things) each winter with a festival that started on December 17th and ended around the 25th. It included a celebration of the Solstice, as well as partying and the exchange of gifts among friends and family. Worship of the ancient Persian God of Light (Mithraism) was also popular at this time, especially among Roman soldiers. Like the worship of Saturn, the cult of Mithraism included a host of festivities in late December, around the Winter Solstice.

Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 CE and the official sanctioning of the religion signaled the formation of many of the traditions it still holds to this day. One possible explanation for the decision to hold Christmas festivities on the 25th December is that the date was already celebrated by pagans. Selecting this date would have eased the transition from the pagan traditions and calendar to the Christian. There was also some logic for this decision in scripture. Early Christian tradition stated that the Annunciation (when Mary was told she would have a special child) happened on the 25th March. The 25th December is thus nine months after the Annunciation.

Christmas was first recorded as being celebrated on the 25th December in 336 CE, and a few years later Pope Julius I declared the date to be the official celebration of Jesus’ birth. After its adoption by Roman culture, the celebration of Christmas quickly spread east and west, and started to be observed by other Christian denominations.

Over the centuries other traditions have been added – the lighting of the Yule Log comes from pagan Scandinavia, while the story of ‘Santa Claus’ comes from the popular medieval feast of St. Nicholas Myra, a saint who visited children and left them presents just before Christmas. Christmas, as we celebrate it today, is a mixture of different cultures. For Christians it is the day put aside to acknowledge Christ’s birthday, however, it is also a continuation of long held traditions from history, intended to provide light in the darkest part of the year through the exchange of presents and good will.

By: Daryl Worthington in newhistorian.com

Medieval European Perceptions of Islam

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In 1087, a joint Pisan and Genoese force attacked the North African town of Mahdia, located in modern-day Tunisia. Christian forces returned to Italy triumphantly and used their spoils of war to construct commemorative churches.

A number of Arabic and Latin sources from the time testify to the events surrounding the raid of Mahdia.

One of the most important Latin sources is the poem Carmen in Victoriam Pisanorum, ‘Song for the Triumph of the Pisans’. The Carmen, written by a Pisan cleric only months after the raid, commemorates the expedition.

It has often been argued that the raid on Mahdia – conducted under the banner of St. Peter against a Muslim ruler – was a direct precursor to the First Crusade which followed eight years later. The Carmen is often viewed as providing context for the development of a crusading ideology in the eleventh century.

A pioneering new study has taken a fresh look at the Carmen. Matt King, a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota, has been studying the Carmen as a means of understanding Christian perceptions of Islam.

“An examination of this text will allow historians to consider Latin Christian perspectives on Islam and its adherents during the period immediately preceding the First Crusade,” King writes in his article, published in Hortulus, a graduate journal on medieval studies.

It is usually suggested that Pisan interests in North Africa were primarily commercial, with military activities receiving less attention. King argues that there was a certain level of coexistence and cooperation between Pisa and Islamic states, while the Carmen reveals a different side of the story where religiously-charged rhetoric could be applied to justify violent ends.

The Mahdia raid can be located in a wider context of Pisan military activities in North Africa. Pisa had been involved in military actions against Muslims throughout the eleventh century; briefly seizing the city of Bone in 1034 and helping the Norman Robert Guiscard in his conquest of Sicily in 1063.

“The author of the Carmen was thus writing in the midst of conflicts between burgeoning Italian commercial powers and Muslim states in the Mediterranean,” King notes.

Importantly, the Carmen makes frequent Old Testament references in an effort to locate Pisan activity in a Biblical tradition. Within this framework, the inhabitants of Mahdia take the form of Old Testament villains who feel the wrath of God. In contrast, King argues, the Pisans are a Gideon/David/Moses combination who, through the favour of God, are able to defeat their adversary.

“Such a description makes clear the deep religious roots that run throughout this story,” King notes. “In this narrative, it is impossible to separate the sacking of Mahdia or the author’s perception of Islam from this ancient narrative.”

The portrayal of Islam in the Carmen is a multi-faceted one. Pisan attacks are understood as an epic confrontation, similar to the Old Testament and classical tales. Further, the doctrine of the Muslim inhabitants of Mahdia is portrayed as a form of heretical Christianity. Taken together, these depictions of Muslim Africa reveal a medieval Latin understanding of the area as a place and people of the utmost evil.

King notes that the Carmen is, however, a triumphant poem. The author is consciously contextualising the Pisan-Genoese raid in a tradition of God-willed triumph. Simply taking the Carmen’s portrayal of Islam at face value, therefore, may misrepresent the Latin understanding of Islam.

“If we cautiously take the Carmen as indicative of general trends in Pisan perceptions of Islam and Africa,” King concludes, “we thus can see an image of Pisa as a city with some knowledge of medieval Ifriqiya and as one that used this knowledge to nurture some image of righteous war against Muslims.”

For more information: www.hortulus-journal.com

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: DrFO.Jr.Tn

By: Adam Steedman Thake in newhistorian.com

The Knights Templar Declared an Army of God

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On the 13th January 1128, Pope Honorius declared the Knights Templar to be an army of God, providing official papal sanction to the military order. Works of fiction, speculative history and conspiracy theories about the Order have since generated a cloud of intrigue and mystery, with modern myths defining the Knights Templar as much as historical reality.

The Order was founded in 1118, in the aftermath of the First Crusade (1095-99). Following the success a number of ‘Crusader States’ were established in the Middle East, centred around Jerusalem, and pilgrims from Western Europe began to venture into the Holy Land. A weakened military presence in the region however, meant that the hold on these newly captured territories was precarious, and Christian pilgrims were frequently attacked by Muslim raiders.

A group of French Knights, led by Hugues de Payns, vowed to protect Christian pilgrims, and created a religious community towards that end. The king of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, gave the Knights quarters in the the Temple of Solomon. For the first few years the Knights Templar consisted of only nine French knights (and their entourages), restricting them purely to escorting pilgrims. From such humble beginnings however, they grew into something far more significant and powerful, in both Europe and the Holy Land.

The organisation and regulation of the order was based on the Benedictine Rule, and in particular the interpretation adopted by Cistercians. The white robe with a red cross, the insignia of the Order, was based on the white robes of Cistercian monks. The Knights had to swear a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, and renounce the world. They took on lives reminiscent of monks, although they did not devote themselves to the study of scripture, and were not constrained to a single monastery. Individual knights were prohibited from owning property, but the Order itself was not, something which would come to be a cause of great controversy.

In 1127 de Payns started a tour of Europe, with the aim of recruiting more knights and securing donations. The tour was successful, with the nobles of Europe making substantial donations of land and money, and scores of new knights being recruited. The increase in numbers and resources saw the Knights take on greater importance in the Holy Land. Assuming responsibility for the protection of the Christian states located there, they invested in the construction of castles and fortifications, as well as fighting against Muslim armies. It has been estimated that some 20,000 soldiers of the Knights Templar lost their lives during the Crusades.

The fall of Acre, the last Crusader stronghold, in 1291, signaled the failure of the Crusades, and the role of the Knights Templar came into question. By this point they had become hugely significant in European politics and economics. The Order owned large swathes of land across Western Europe, as well as in the Holy Land. Their network of property and military strength meant they were often employed as bankers, used to transport money from Western Europe to the Holy Land, and back. They had become far more than a military order, and there is evidence to suggest that many secular leaders, including royalty, found themselves in debt to the Knights Templar.

A combination of the mystery surrounding the Templars, their growing secular power and the failure of the Crusades, ultimately brought about their end. The initiation rituals of the Order were shrouded in secrecy, as was much of the knight’s day to day practice. In 1307 the Order’s grand master Jacques de Molay was arrested at the behest of King Philip VI of France and Pope Clement V. The Order was accused of practicing heresy, sacrilege, Satanism and homosexuality. Under torture de Molay and other leading Templars confessed to the charges, and were burned at the stake in Paris. It seems the charges were a calculated move, such accusations led to popular mistrust of the Templars, and the secrecy surrounding the Order gave the charges an air of credibility. It should be noted however, that it has since been proved that the charges were fabricated. In 1312 Clement officially dissolved the Order, awarding their assets to a rival order, the Knights Hospitalers.

Since its destruction, the fascination with the Knights Templar has expanded, sometimes with tragic effect. Whether considered as a secret force for good or evil, it seems they continue to linger in the world’s consciousness, and continue to be associated with secrecy. The Templars are often linked with the legend of the Holy Grail or with conspiracies involving the Catholic Church. In the eighteenth century they were accused of starting the French Revolution, and linked to the Freemasons. More recently, novels such as the ‘da Vinci Code’ have tied them in with international clandestine activity, while an American historian has rather sensationally argued that the Templars in fact fled to North America, settling there a century before Columbus discovered the New World. Most disturbingly, the Norwegian terrorist Anders Brevik made heavy reference to them in his manifesto, claiming to have reformed the order.

As mentioned above, the Knights Templar were ultimately dissolved as a consequence of their growing power, and the secrecy that surrounded them. It seems that these same factors have facilitated the development of the legends, myths and conspiracy theories that surround the Order. The story of the Knights Templar tells us a great deal about Europe during the time of the crusades. The story of how we remember them can tell us a great deal about the world in the seven centuries since their dissolution.

By: Daryl Worthington in newhistorian.com