I have a power in my soul which is ever receptive to God. I am as certain [of that] as that I am a man, that nothing is so close to me as God. God is closer to me than I am to myself: my being depends on God’s being near me and present to me. — Meister Eckhart (circa 1260-1328)
The scenario is bleak: Consumerism and materialism dominate all aspects of social life. Older people look with alarm at the crumbling of civic and religious institutions. Young people view the future with a sense of foreboding. Politicians appear self-interested, religious leaders hypocritical, business people ever more corrupt. Violence is escalating at home and abroad, with no ready solution in sight. Alienation and disorientation are pervasive.
Whatever similarities we may find in our contemporary predicament, the society I’m describing is 14th-century Germany. As in 21st-century America, many people of the time, feeling battered by the world around them, sought spiritual wisdom and a more profound connection to the divine. In the early 1300s, this meant that a large number of practicing Christians, laypeople and clerics alike, were searching for a more direct and satisfying experience of God’s presence than what they found in familiar institutional practices.
The potential chaos embodied in these grassroots, subjective movements alarmed some Church leaders. From his seat in Avignon, Pope John XXII, while mostly concerned with matters of state, sought to rein in both the “radical” Franciscans, who preached the importance of apostolic poverty, and the women known as beguines, who formed what we would today call intentional religious communities — groups of spiritually likeminded laypeople, rather than members of a formal religious order, who lived and prayed together.
In the midst of this tumult, many Christian seekers in the Rhineland of what is today western Germany found life-altering wisdom in the preaching of a Dominican friar, Eckhart von Hochheim, better known as Meister (“Master”) Eckhart. An acclaimed scholar trained at the University of Paris, Meister Eckhart sought to bring the fruits of his many years of theological and philosophical study and contemplation to lay audiences — an unusual aspiration among priest-scholars, who typically considered such matters beyond the comprehension of average people.
Even more revolutionary was Eckhart’s message. Unlike most preachers of the day, who focused on sin and eternal punishment, he described a process he called “the divine birth,” in which true believers could experience God directly within them. The key lay in letting go of all worldly things, all desires and preconceptions — even one’s image of God himself: “The more completely you are able to draw in your powers to a unity and forget all those things and their images which you have absorbed, and the further you can get from creatures and their images, the nearer you are to this [divine birth] and the readier to receive it.”
Then, he said — “in the midst of silence” — God would come within the soul.
Meister Eckhart’s way to “know” God directly was shaped by two central insights, the products of many years of study and contemplation. The first was that the seeker must “unknow” everything he or she thinks about God. Human language and images are essentially metaphorical, comparing things to one another. But God is completely other. Obviously he is not an old man with a flowing white beard (or even a “he”), but he is also not a being in the sense that we normally mean. It is more accurate, according to Eckhart, to say that God is Being itself, since all existence derives from him. “We should learn not to give God any name . . . for God is above names and ineffable.” In fact, Eckhart warns, “if you think of anything he might be, he is not that.” This deconstruction of images of God, in which we come closer to knowing the ineffable divine by negative attributions — God does not exist in time or space, for instance — than by positive attributions, is known as negative theology, a tradition dating back to St. Augustine.
“We are the cause of all our hindrances. Guard yourself against yourself, then you will have guarded well.” — Meister Eckhart
God’s “unknowability” in word and image was a hard concession for a professional scholar who had invested himself in coming to know God through a rigorous probing of Scripture and Catholic tradition. But the more that Eckhart had tried to approach God rationally, the more frustrated he had become. Instead he came upon a second key insight: One could “know” God through direct experience. Later scholars would call such an approach “mystical,” but a more accurate and less loaded term for what Eckhart meant would be “intuitive”: Rather than trying to know God from the outside, through our senses and intellect, we should try to know him from the inside, from that divine presence already within each of us.
Eckhart called this presence “the divine spark.” He preached that, through a contemplative process of self-emptying, or “letting-go-ness,” the seeker will directly encounter the God within. Only with the death of the old and false self, in theological terms, could the new and true self be born.
The concept traces to St. Paul, who directed Christians to “put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” In Eckhart’s interpretation, the resulting “divine birth” represented no mere metaphor but a direct encounter of the individual soul with the divine. The best news was that God was eager to fully embrace the seeker: “You need not seek him here or there,” he wrote. “He is no further than the door of your heart; there he stands patiently awaiting whoever is ready to open up and let him in. No need to call him from afar: He can hardly wait for you to open up. He longs for you a thousand times more than you long for him.”
Eckhart’s message both excited and unnerved the Christians of his day. Although he never denigrated the external forms of piety around him — he was an active priest — his focus on the internal, on contemplation, was highly unusual, even unsettling to many lay listeners. The Church they knew preached that each person’s salvation depended on the performance of good works and acts of contrition, yet these were absent from Eckhart’s teaching. The Church they knew revolved around the veneration of saints and the celebration of sacraments, yet these played no apparent role in the internal self-transcendence Eckhart described. The Church they knew esteemed monks, nuns and other contemplatives as closer to God than the layperson, yet Eckhart preached that direct experience of God was accessible to any true seeker, regardless of social or religious status.
It is a testament to the truly “catholic” nature of medieval Christianity that what Eckhart called “a wayless way” to divine union — and subsequent commentators would call apophatic or imageless mysticism — coexisted peacefully with Eucharistic devotions, pilgrimages and penitential self-flagellation. Not until late in his life did Eckhart become caught up in an inquisitorial procedure, based largely on local politics, that culminated in several of his statements being condemned in a papal bull as “evil-sounding.” After eliminating these more controversial statements, his disciples Johannes Tauler and Blessed Heinrich Suso continued to attract followers after the master’s death in the late 1320s. Still, after several decades the master himself faded into obscurity.
Fast forward seven centuries and the medieval Dominican friar has emerged as something of a modern spiritual celebrity. Millions of Roman Catholics and other Christians now claim Meister Eckhart as one of their own, not to mention many Zen Buddhists, Sufi Muslims, Advaita Vedanta Hindus, Jewish Cabalists and a variety of other seekers who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In the United States, interest in Eckhart owes much to the popularity of his namesake, Eckhart (born Ulrich) Tolle, a spiritual teacher and author whose beliefs weave together the medieval master’s teachings with an eclectic blend of contemporary Eastern and New Age concepts. Thanks in part to the massively influential endorsement of A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Oprah’s Book Club, the modern Eckhart’s books have together been translated into more than 30 languages and sold some 10 million copies worldwide.
What is it that all these people see in the words of this sage from a distant era? The most common denominator appears to be an attraction to Eckhart’s revolutionary method of direct access to God (or, for some, to ultimate reality) — a profoundly subjective approach that is at once intuitive and pragmatic, philosophical yet non-rational, and above all, universally accessible. Many modern Christian authors, such as the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr — who calls Eckhart a “mystic’s mystic” — view his teachings as part of a long Christian contemplative tradition.
“Where is this hidden God? It is just as if a man were to hide himself and then to give himself away by clearing his throat. God has done the same. No man could ever have found God, but he has revealed his presence.” — Meister Eckhart
Despite that noble pedigree, Meister Eckhart was late to gain notice among modern Christians. His attractiveness to many contemporary Catholics ironically owes much to the post-Vatican II Church’s intensified engagement with other world religions. The Council’s 1965 declaration Nostra aetate (“In Our Time”) is best known for its repudiation of Catholicism’s long tradition of anti-Semitic statements, but it also represented the Church’s first genuine outreach to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-Christian religious traditions. By a vote of 2,221 to 88, the Council affirmed that the Holy Spirit can indeed be at work in these faiths as well, although obviously not to the same degree as in Christ’s ordained Church.
Already by that time, several Catholic thinkers had begun to explore affinities with non-Christian religions, particularly those of Asia. One of the most famous of those spiritual explorers, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, engaged extensively with Zen Buddhist teachings before discovering a strikingly similar approach already present within his own tradition: Meister Eckhart. Merton agreed with his frequent correspondent, the Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki, who called Eckhart “the one Zen thinker of the West.”
At the same time that medieval Japanese monks were formulating the core of Zen teaching, Eckhart drew deeply on centuries of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and pagan thought to develop a remarkably similar approach to experience of the divine. “Letting-go-ness” lines up with the Zen “no-mind” (wuxin) as well as the Taoist “no action” (wu wei). Buddhists also appreciate the master’s distinction between the constructed individual identity of each person — what we would call the ego and Eckhart calls the “false self” — and the common nature we all share, the authentic self, which the master identified as divine.
Like his Zen counterparts, Eckhart was wary of God-talk, which he thought more often obscured than revealed the divine, and he aspired to a unity with the ultimate. He called this a “second” or “divine” birth, which is in many ways similar to the Buddhist notion of satori, orenlightenment. The resulting “Christ nature” that he described, echoing St. Paul in Galatians 2:20 (“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”) looks remarkably similar to the internal “Buddha nature” of the Mahayana tradition.
At the same time, Eckhart’s embrace of meditation anticipates by seven centuries its popularity, along with the practice of “mindfulness,” among people of faith as well as among the ever-growing number of New Age seekers, agnostics and avowed atheists and others who list their religious affiliation as “none.”
Obviously many important differences remain between the Catholic Eckhart and other faith traditions, most notably on the role and identity of Christ. But the significant convergences have attracted increasing attention since the 1960s. In that sense, Eckhart, whom Merton called “my life-raft,” has brought the contemplative tradition to non-Catholics while deepening the modern Church’s ecumenical dialogue with other spiritual traditions.
Of course, not all Catholics would view the similarity of Eckhart’s teachings to Zen Buddhist practices as a recommendation. While more ecumenical Catholic writers such as the priests Aelred Graham, OSB, Robert E. Kennedy, S.J., and Richard Rohr celebrate the affinity, other more conservative thinkers, such as James Hitchcock, have remained cautious about a full embrace of the medieval friar (particularly given Eckhart’s sermons on the Godhead, in which detractors detect hints of pantheism).
Other modern advocates of lay contemplative practices — particularly Father Thomas Keating, OCSO, and the other founders of Centering Prayer — have bypassed Eckhart altogether in favor of other mystical writings such as The Cloud of Unknowing, a work composed in Middle English a few decades after Eckhart’s death. Yet during the past 20 years, the tide among Catholics has shifted definitively. The two previous popes have spoken favorably of the once-censured Meister Eckhart, leading the Dominicans to request a formal rehabilitation of their late brother in 1992, only to be informed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2010 that, in the words of Father Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., former master of the order, “there was really no need, since he had never been condemned by name, just some propositions which he was supposed to have held, and so we are perfectly free to say that he is a good and orthodox theologian.”
“Mysticism” also remains a suspicious concept for many modern people, given its popular association with visions and other supernatural experiences. But Meister Eckhart never claimed any special powers or called himself a mystic — or anything other than a Catholic preacher of the gospel. If he was a mystic, he was a profoundly anti-obscurant, egalitarian and down-to-earth one, rooted in centuries of Catholic contemplative tradition. In that sense he may be the perfect mystic for our own troubled times.
By Joel Harrington in magazine.nd.edu
Joel Harrington is Centennial Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and the author or editor of seven books on premodern Germany. His Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within was published in March 2018 by Penguin Press.
A substantial part of the ceremony of adoubement is conducted privately, only accessible to members of the Order. The act of adoubement itself, however, is public. It becomes a commitment not only to the Order but also to the world. Having this in mind, it’s not easy to describe the complete ceremony as it is conducted in the priory of Portugal, since it strictly follows Tradition, starting just moments before sunset, leading to a night long vigil where the future Knights and Dames are led to contemplate their life and prepare to partake of a new quality, that is both physical and spiritual, that could change their lives.
It is preferable, therefore, that we let images and quotes fill the gaps of what is customary to make public and what is deemed as more suitable to keep reserved and personal.
“Once they have installed themselves in this holy house with their horses and their weapons, clean it”, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
Ex Occidente Lux
“Colors are light’s suffering and joy”, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Lux in Flamma
“Danger or victory depends on the disposition of heart”, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
“This is, I say, a new kind of knighthood and one unknown to the ages gone by. It ceaselessly wages a twofold war both against flesh and blood and against a spiritual army of evil in the heavens.”, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
Spero in Fide
Post Tenebras Lux
“Go forth confidently”, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
“If some perhaps find my work unsatisfactory or short of the mark, I shall be nonetheless content, since I have not failed to give you my best.”, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
All photos were taken by members of the Order, including Novices, Squires, Knights and Dames. For a full credit list, please visit our Facebook Group.
The Order has the following new Knights and Dames: Catarina Silva, DTJ; Cristina Vargas, DTJ; Filipe Silva, KTJ; Inês Ferreira, DTJ; João Gonçalves, KTJ; Jorge Amador, KTJ; Jorge Cravosa, KTJ; Pedro Bernardo, KTJ; Vera Reis, DTJ. The Order also received new Novices and Squires.
After the Benedictio Militis and the Pentecost Mass, the Order joined the Idegeo [Association] of Professor Manuel J. Gandra‘s celebration of Pentecost in Arraiolos. The Portuguese traditional Império do Divino Espírito Santo, in preparation for the Third Age announced by Joachim of Fiore or the Fifth Empire (of the Holy Spirit) referred to by poet Fernando Pessoa and many others, is comprised of an Auto, with the Parade and Coronation of the Child King, followed by the Bodo do Império, a popular feast and meal shared between all the participants as the anticipation of an era of the universal fraternity of mankind. This is the second year that the Priory of Portugal supports and attends these celebrations as part of the annual calendar.
For inquiries, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org
Type “Holy Grail” into Google and … well, you probably don’t need me to finish that sentence. The sheer multiplicity of what any search engine throws up demonstrates that there is no clear consensus as to what the Grail is or was. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people out there claiming to know its history, true meaning and even where to find it.
Modern authors, perhaps most (in)famously Dan Brown, offer new interpretations and, even when these are clearly and explicitly rooted in little more than imaginative fiction, they get picked up and bandied about as if a new scientific and irrefutable truth has been discovered. The Grail, though, will perhaps always eschew definition. But why?
The first known mention of a Grail (“un graal”) is made in a narrative spun by a 12th century writer of French romance, Chrétien de Troyes, who might reasonably be referred to as the Dan Brown of his day – though some scholars would argue that the quality of Chrétien’s writing far exceeds anything Brown has so far produced.
Chrétien’s Grail is mystical indeed – it is a dish, big and wide enough to take a salmon, that seems capable to delivering food and sustenance. To obtain the Grail requires asking a particular question at the Grail Castle. Unfortunately, the exact question (“Whom does the Grail serve?”) is only revealed after the Grail quester, the hapless Perceval, has missed the opportunity to ask it. It seems he is not quite ready, not quite mature enough, for the Grail.
But if this dish is the “first” Grail, then why do we now have so many possible Grails? Indeed, it is, at turns, depicted as the chalice of the Last Supper or of the Crucifixion or both, or as a stone containing the elixir of life, or even as the bloodline of Christ. And this list is hardly exhaustive. The reason most likely has to do with the fact that Chrétien appears to have died before completing his story, leaving the crucial questions as to what the Grail is and means tantalisingly unanswered. And it did not take long for others to try to answer them for him.
Robert de Boron, a poet writing within 20 or so years of Chrétien (circa 1190-1200), seems to have been the first to have associated the Grail with the cup of the Last Supper. In Robert’s prehistory of the object, Joseph of Arimathea took the Grail to the Crucifixion and used it to catch Christ’s blood. In the years that followed (1200-1230), anonymous writers of prose romances fixated upon the Last Supper’s Holy Chalice and made the Grail the subject of a quest by various knights of King Arthur’s court. In Germany, by contrast, the knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach reimagined the Grail as “Lapsit exillis” – an item more commonly referred to these days as the “Philosopher’s Stone”.
None of these is anything like Chrétien’s Grail, of course, so we can fairly ask: did medieval audiences have any more of a clue about the nature of the Holy Grail than we do today?
Publishing the Grail
My recent book delves into the medieval publishing history of the French romances that contain references to the Grail legend, asking questions about the narratives’ compilation into manuscript books. Sometimes, a given text will be bound alongside other types of texts, some of which seemingly have nothing to do with the Grail whatsoever. So, what sorts of texts do we find accompanying Grail narratives in medieval books? Can this tell us anything about what medieval audiences knew or understood of the Grail?
The picture is varied, but a broad chronological trend is possible to spot. Some of the few earliest manuscript books we still have see Grail narratives compiled alone, but a pattern quickly appears for including them into collected volumes. In these cases, Grail narratives can be found alongside historical, religious or other narrative (or fictional) texts. A picture emerges, therefore, of a Grail just as lacking in clear definition as that of today.
Perhaps the Grail served as a useful tool that could be deployed in all manner of contexts to help communicate the required message, whatever that message may have been. We still see this today, of course, such as when we use the phrase “The Holy Grail of…” to describe the practically unobtainable, but highly desirable prize in just about any area you can think of. There is even a guitar effect-pedal named “holy grail”.
Once the prose romances of the 13th century started to appear, though, the Grail took on a proper life of its own. Like a modern soap opera, these romances comprised vast reams of narrative threads, riddled with independent episodes and inconsistencies. They occupied entire books, often enormous and lavishly illustrated, and today these offer evidence that literature about the Grail evaded straightforward understanding and needed to be set apart – physically and figuratively. In other words, Grail literature had a distinctive quality – it was, as we might call it today, a genre in its own right.
In the absence of clear definition, it is human nature to impose meaning. This is what happens with the Grail today and, according to the evidence of medieval book compilation, it is almost certainly what happened in the Middle Ages, too. Just as modern guitarists use their “holy grail” to experiment with all kinds of sounds, so medieval writers and publishers of romance used the Grail as an adaptable and creative instrument for conveying a particular message to their audience, the nature of which could be very different from one book to the next.
Whether the audience always understood that message, of course, is another matter entirely.
in theconversation.com by Leah Tether
The Bible offers a pretty comprehensive answer to the question ‘WWJD?’: what would Jesus do? But, as Christians observe Easter and the Last Supper another question arises: what would jesus drink?
To answer this question, the location and timing of the final meal that Jesus had with his disciples before he was crucified is key. And three of four of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible – known as the Gospels – suggest that it took place on the last Thursday celebration of Passover in around AD 30, Father Daniel Kendall, Professor of Theology and Scripture at the University of San Francisco told wine app Vivino.
“Unlike John the Baptist, Jesus drank wine,” explains Father Kendall, adding: “From the descriptions it was most likely a Seder meal. Since it was and is the most important of Jewish feasts, wine would have been part of the festivities.”
While grape varieties may not have been named and identified as they are now, wine had been made in this part of the Middle East since around 4000 BC.
Archaeological evidence suggests that around the time of the last supper, rich, concentrated wines were popular, says Dr Patrick McGovern, Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.
In Judah more specifically – near Jerusalem where the Last Supper is said to have taken place – archaeologists have found a jar inscribed with: “wine made from black raisins”. This means that winemakers may have used grapes dried on the vine or in the sun on mats to create sweet, thick drinks. At sites nearby in the region, jars labelled “smoked wine” and “very dark wine” have also been found.
While it was common to water down wine at the time, there was a taste in Jerusalem for rich, concentrated wine, according to Dr McGovern.
Spices and fruits – including pomegranates, mandrakes, saffron and cinnamon – were used to flavour such wines, and tree resin were added to help preserve them. So, the wine drank at the Last Supper, then, might resemble the mulled wine some of us drink at Christmas.
Today, comparable bottles would include Amarone, which is made in Northern Italy with grapes dried on straw mats.
While it’s unclear exactly which wine Jesus drank at the last supper, Dr McGovern jokes: “If someone can find me the Holy Grail and send it to my lab, we could analyse it and tell you.”
in The Independent
Realizou-se em Sintra o Almoço de Reis do Priorado de Portugal da OSMTHU, evento que abriu as actividades da Ordem para o ano de 2018.
O almoço foi presidido por Luis de Matos, Prior Geral coadjuvado pelos Comendadores de Sintra, Fr+ Paulo Valente KCTJ, Comendador de Lisboa – Colina das Chagas, Fr+ Luis Fonseca KCTJ, in Ecclesia Mons. Tau Christoforus de Lusignan e Comendador do Condado de Arraiolos, Fr+ Rui Herdadinha KCTJ, estando presentes ainda vários irmãos, irmãs, família e convidados.
Como é habitual, além do convívio, da conversa fraterna, da brincadeira costumeira em encontros como o nosso, o Almoço teve um tema sobre o qual se pôde reflectir e fazer alguma instrução de Cavalaria. Sendo dia de Reis, falou-se dos Reis Magos. Contudo, de todas as figuras tradicionais no Presépio, o foco foi colocado o Jumento. De facto, o mais esquecidos dos animais da Natividade tem muito que ensinar. Juntamente com o Bovino (que sublinha a letra B e a força criadora seminal), o Jumento (que sublinha a letra J e a força dócil e suave) expressa a dualidade que venera o Menino na manjedoura. O Jumento não apenas foi fundamental na fuga para o Egipto, como teve ainda um papel central no reconhecimento de Jesus como o Messias (e por isso o Ungido, ou Crestos). De facto, embora a tradição coloque Jesus num cavalo a caminho da Cidade Santa, ao chegar à porta da cidade desmontou e mandou que se buscasse um jumento para que nele montasse antes de entrar na cidade. Era esse o sinal designado por Isaías, que selava a profecia e dava a conhecer o Esperado.
A montada do guerreiro é o cavalo, que nos aparece como sendo branco em muitas histórias. Mas o Sábio apresenta-se num burrico. A dicotomia Cavalo/Jumento é a do Guerreiro/Monge. O clássico de Cervantes “D. Quixote de La Mancha” mostra-nos bem como o idealismo por vezes alucinado de Quixote do alto do seu cavalo Roncinante é equilibrado pela ligação à realidade imediata de Sancho Pança, que, fiel companheiro, como um eco da consciência interior, o segue no seu burrico sem nome.
A discussão e o convívio prolongou-se por muitas horas, com muitas contribuições para a reflexão de muitos dos presentes, sempre inquietos quando estes temas se discutem.
Foi sem surpresa que o nosso grupo foi o último a deixar o Restaurante, já muito próximo das 5:00 da tarde. Um grande obrigado a todos os presentes, pela alegria e boa disposição que trouxeram, e muito particularmente à Irmã Susana Ferreira DTJ que organizou o dia com todo o cuidado e detalhe.
A todos um excelente ano de 2018.
Short English Summary:
The Priory of Portugal celebrated Good Kings Day in a Lunch and debate event in Sintra last Saturday, January 6th 2018. Attending were Fr+ Luis de Matos, Grand Prior General and Chancellor and Interim Master of the OSMTHU, Fr+ Paulo Valente, Commander of Sintra, Fr+ Luis Fonseca, Commander of Lisbon – Chagas Hill and Fr+ Rui Herdadinha, Commander of Arraiolos, as well as numerous brothers and sisters, family and invited guests. The theme of the day was the symbolism o the Donkey in the Nativity scene, the less prominent of all the animals connected with Our Lord, but one of the most interesting in its meaning. With a starting point on the Donkey’s role on the biblical episode of the escape to Egypt and later in the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah when He entered Jerusalem riding a Donkey (as the prophecy had it), the group explored the deep and meaningful role of this animal in the life of Christ. A fulfilling day of joy and fraternal conviviality was closed long after everyone else had left the Restaurant and the group (as always) was the very last to part ways, so interesting and compelling was the discussion. From us all, a wish for a happy and peaceful year of 2018.
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.
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