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Pictures at a Crucifixion

Yesterday I blogged on the exciting archeological discovery in the Basque Country. Among the finds was the a third-century rendering of Calvary — the earliest ever found. The crucifixion scene is primitive in technique, but rich in details from the canonical gospels. (Nothing from the Gospel of Judas, though. Was there perhaps … a coverup? Dan Brown, call your agent!) Some folks said they want to see pictures. Others let us know where to find pictures.

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Did the Fathers Use Mac or PC?

Rod Bennett reports the archeological discovery of a patristic-era computer. (I’m not making this up.) The big question is, of course, which operating system the Fathers would use. It’s a question ripe with theological implication, as Umberto Eco pointed out in his 1994 essay “The Holy War: Mac vs. DOS.” Eco echoes my allegiances exactly. Rod’s reporting is delightful as always.

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The Dark Side of Camelot

Chris Bailey is really the Woodward and Bernstein of the late patristic era. Now he’s exposed the dark side of King Arthur, drawing from obscure early British sources. After you read this, you might be glad you don’t have Tricky Art to kick around anymore. Chris is also closing in on the historical Merlin.

If you want to know more about history’s records of Arthur, Merlin, and the Holy Grail (though not necessarily in that order), you simply must read our book, The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence. (If you prefer to read Canadian French, click here.)

UPDATE: Nice new reviews of The Grail Code from that wild and crazy Texan Happy Catholic and Rome’s most precious commodity (after pasta), Father John Wauck.

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Trinity Sunday

God lives and reigns eternally, a Trinity in unity. As Pope John Paul II put it: “God in His deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, since He has in Himself fatherhood, sonship, and the essence of the family, which is love.” God is love, an eternal communion of life-giving love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Blessed Trinity is eternal, changeless, undivided, and without beginning or end. The Greek word trias, however, had a beginning in the literary record. It first appears with Theophilus of Antioch about A.D. 180. Tertullian debuts the Latin word Trinitas just a few years later.

The Fathers preached the doctrine, argued for the doctrine — and some died for the doctrine in its purity. Many of the intra-church disputes of the patristic era were bound up with this central dogma of Christian faith.

The Fathers wanted to know God as He is, in His deepest mystery. The mystery could not (and cannot) be dissected and stuffed into a rationalist box, not even by a man as brilliant as Arius. God cannot be comprehended, but He wills to be known. And for the grace of that knowledge the Fathers prayed…

Lead me closer to the tree
Of all life’s eternity;
Which, as I have pondered, is
The knowledge of God’s greatnesses:
Light of One, and shine of Three,
Unto whom all things that be
Flow and tend!

That’s from “Soul and Body,” a long poem by St. Gregory Nazianzen (translated here by Elizabeth Barrett Browning).

And these are the concluding words to St. Hilary of Poitiers’ treatise “On the Trinity.” I broke up the lines, because they read like poetry to me.

I beg You, Father,
keep this my pious faith undefiled,
and even till my spirit departs,
grant that this may be
the utterance of my convictions:
so that I may ever hold fast
that which I professed
in the creed of my regeneration,
when I was baptized
in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Let me, in short, adore You our Father,
and Your Son together with You.
Let me win the favor of Your Holy Spirit,
Who is from You, through Your Only-begotten.
For I have a convincing Witness to my faith, Who says,
“Father, all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine,”
my Lord Jesus Christ, Living in You, and from You, and with You,
forever God:
Who is blessed forever and ever. Amen.

The Trinity is eternal. The revelation of the Trinity came with the incarnation of God the Son. The theological term is just a little late on the scene. The feast day is wonderful, but it came in still later than the period we’re pondering in this blog. Here’s the Catholic Encyclopedia):

In the early Church no special Office or day was assigned for the Holy Trinity. When the Arian heresy was spreading the Fathers prepared an Office with canticles, responses, a Preface, and hymns, to be recited on Sundays. In the Sacramentary of St. Gregory the Great there are prayers and the Preface of the Trinity.

We’d be remiss not to mention the great legend of St. Augustine, walking the beach in North Africa, pondering the Trinity. Along the way, he saw a child hauling buckets of ocean water and pouring them into a hole in the sand. Augustine said to him “You can never succeed in emptying the ocean into that little hole.” The child replied: “I’ll empty the ocean into that little hole before you understand the mystery of the Trinity with your little mind.”

What we cannot comprehend, we can love, and by grace we may come to know, ever more deeply, as did our Fathers before us.

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Archeological Discovery — Basque in This — “Important as Pompeii”

Talk about paydirt. Archeologists in the Basque Country announced this week that they have have discovered 270 third-century Roman inscriptions, many of them Christian in character. This epigraphic set is “among the most important of the Roman world” and includes an image of Calvary — “the most ancient known up to this moment.”

The site seems to represent a transitional phase, when Christianity was emerging in a pagan religious landscape that included cults of Egyptian deities as well as the more familiar local gods.

The managers of the archaeological site, located near the Alavan town of Nanclares de Oca, have officially unveiled these findings, identified and analysed last summer.

The tools with the inscriptions and drawings, most of them ceramics, were found in a room of the “Domus de pompeia valentina,” one of the urban residences of the old city of Veleia, built up in the last quarter of the first century and inhabited until the fifth century.

A 57-square metre room was found in that town, sealed as in a “time capsule with its contents untouched,” and inside there were feeding remains and fragments of different recipients and other tools that had been used for writing …

In the findings, the “early and extraordinary testimonies of Christianisation” stand out. For instance, the presentation of a Calvary, “the most ancient known up to this moment,” a small piece “between eight and ten square centimetres.”

Archaeologists also highlighted that “this is one of the most important epigraphic sets in the Roman world,” as important as those in Pompeii, Rome or Vindolanda (northern England).

The rest of the story’s here.

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The Savior of Publishing

My daughters belong to a club that meets at a local bookstore. While they do crafts and discuss the lives of girls in American history, I do what I do best: browse the shelves.

When I visit the religion section lately, I marvel at how secular publishers have found Jesus — Jesus the commodity, that is. The presses are rolling, it seems, with reams of new gospels, bold new looks at the “Jesus of history.”

It’s about fifteen years since I first noticed the trend. That’s when an Episcopalian bishop from New Jersey, John Shelby Spong, went public with his doubts about the virginal conception and the resurrection. Soon afterward, a lapsed Catholic novelist in England suddenly realized that Jesus was not divine. He discovered a different Jesus, who was, rather, a secular humanist — a good chap, conventionally anti-Catholic, who’d surely understand the author’s abandonment of his wife.

Some folks at Catholic colleges, too, would rather publish than perish. So they’re properly embarrassed by Mother Church’s claims to Jesus’ divinity and the inspiration of Scripture. Like teenagers, they just can’t believe Mom would say such things in public — in front of all their friends!

Some of the Jesus volumes are large books that look mighty on one’s shelf and stop the circulation in your legs if you leave them too long on your lap. So they’re best left on the shelf. In the bookstore.

Really, these claims are nothing new. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John faced the same (weak) competition in 170 A.D. Like Elvis biographies in the 1990s, Jesus biographies abounded in the centuries after the Lord’s ascension. Every hack in the East of the empire seemed to be saying (pseudonymously) “I knew the Messiah when.” But few could agree on who the Messiah was.

This created a problem for the Church, because she did know the Messiah when — and she knew that the hacks were making news rather than reporting it. The Apostles, and their successors, were careful to distinguish the Good News from the rest.

And not all of the rest was bad news. Many extrabiblical “gospels” have survived, and we can see that they vary in literary quality and theological orthodoxy. Some of the earliest apocryphal texts do offer more interesting, more substantial reading than certain canonical texts. The apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas seems weightier than the Bible’s Letter of Jude or Third Letter of John.

But who cares? The Church Fathers, who canonized the books of the Bible, were educated men of enormous literary talent and often remarkable critical faculties. They knew that 3 John was little more than a theological postcard. But when they compiled the canon of the Bible, they weren’t judging books merely on literary merits. They included 3 John because they were certain that an Apostle’s authority was at the other end of it. And they didn’t care if Barnabas was a better read; Jude was the real deal.

Today’s evangelists of doubt will say that they, too, are after authenticity. But the criteria vary widely according to the scholar. At one academic meeting a few years back, the profs could reach consensus on the authenticity of just one statement of Jesus: “Abba.” Another session was uneasy with everything but “Little girl, get up.”

Once we start slicing troublesome spots out of the New Testament, it’s awfully hard to stop. It’s all so troublesome.

But if an unauthorized biography of Christ won’t save souls, the publishers hope it’ll at least save their business. And what’s more important? (See Mk 8:36.)

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There’s good precedent for what we do. The Fathers were really into the Fathers: “They held to what they found in the Church,” said St. Augustine in 421 A.D. “They taught what they had learned. What they had received from the Fathers, they passed on to the children.”

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For the Kids

My daughter Rosemary (a bookish eleven-year-old) recommends a new title from Sophia Institute Press, The Book of Saints and Heroes, by Andrew and Lenora Lang. (I can’t find it on Amazon yet, but it’s available from the publisher.) I haven’t read the book, but I trust Rosemary’s judgment. I note that about a third of the volume is given to figures of the patristic era: St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Dorothea, St. Jerome, Synesius of Cyrene, St. Augustine, St. Germanus, St. Simeon Stylites, and many others. It’s a sturdy and attractive hardcover book, which I must now hand back to its rightful owner.

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On Research

My co-author Chris Bailey has posted a helpful article on how to make a falsehood true. If you’ve always wanted to write a book like The Da Vinci Code, you need to read Chris’s posting.

If, however, you’ve always wanted to know the (real) truth about the Holy Grail, King Arthur, Merlin, and the rest, you need to read our book, The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence. (If you’d rather read it in Canadian French, click here.)

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Ephrem, Symbolist

Today’s the feast of St. Ephrem of Syria, Father and Doctor of the Church — and perhaps the poet laureate of the patristic era.

Ephraem was instructed in the Christian mysteries by St. James, the famous Bishop of Nisibis, and was baptized in young adulthood. Ephrem took an active role in the local church, and was at some point ordained a deacon. The bishop relied on Ephrem to renew the moral life of the city, especially during the sieges of 338, 346, and 350. One of his biographers tells us how Ephrem’s prayer caused a cloud of flies and mosquitoes to settle upon the vast Persian army of Sapor II, driving the men away. But it was only a temporary relief. And when the Roman Empire, finally, did lose its Eastern provinces, Persia subjected the Church of Nisibis to cruel persecution. The Christians left en masse, settling eventually at Edessa. There Ephrem spent his remaining ten years as a hermit. Even the exile had a happy ending, however. Thanks to the great exodus from Nisibis, Edessa became a great Christian intellectual center for centuries afterward.

Ephrem wrote voluminous commentaries on the Bible. He also wrote reams of verse on biblical themes. Some scholars divide individual Fathers’ biblical interpretation up into one of two camps: the literal or the allegorical. But Ephrem is not so easily categorized. He was a master of both types of exegesis. In his poems he pursued allegory. In his prose, he presented history. His hymns have remained popular in the Eastern churches for well over a millennium, in their original Syriac and in Greek translation. Here’s one that made it into modern hymnals in English.

Many of Ephrem’s works are on the Web. At Christian Classics Ethereal Library you’ll find various and sundry from the Edinburgh edition of the Fathers. The Tertullian Project offers still other works in translation. And you might also enjoy some more recent postings — one with the enticing title “The Cave of Treasures,” and another that’s slightly more intimidating: “The Hymns on Fasting.” (You go that way, and I’ll go this way.)

Meditating on the the wonder of the incarnation, on the feast of the Nativity, Ephrem wrote of Jesus:

He is the Breast of Life and the Breath of Life. . . .
When He sucked the breast of Mary,
He was suckling all with His life.
While He was lying on His Mother’s bosom,
in His bosom were all creatures lying

You’ll find his poems in accessible modern translations here and here. Sebastian Brock has written a profound study of the Sweet Singer of Nisibis, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem.

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Prefer Nothing to Christ

Father Bob McCreary, the great retreat master and scholar of St. Bonaventure, draws our attention to the line “Prefer nothing to Christ,” which is well known from the Rule of St. Benedict. Father Bob points out, however, that Benedict was quoting the third-century bishop St. Cyprian of Carthage. Surely Benedict assumed that his readers would know the other half of Cyprian’s exhortation — the why of it all.

“Prefer nothing to Christ, because He preferred nothing to us, and on our account preferred evil things to good, poverty to riches, servitude to rule, death to immortality.”

A good thought to keep while turning in for the night, or rising in the morning.