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Poet of the Eucharist

Thanks to those who asked about my little book on the poetry of St. Thomas Aquinas. All of the poems are about the Eucharist — its pre-history (in the Old Testament types), history (in the New Testament), and theology, as well as the Church’s devotion. The book includes the full text of all the poems, in the original Latin and in English translation; an introduction that provides biographical and historical context; and fifty meditations on aspects of the poems. There’s a sizable bibliography in the back, for those who want to conduct further research.

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Should Old Aquinas Be Forgot?

Last Sunday, like every Sunday, was the Lord’s Day, which supersedes even the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas — the great patristics scholar of the high middle ages. Daniel Boorstin reports that Thomas habitually committed entire works of the Fathers to memory.

I wrote a little book about Thomas’s poetry — started it while I was in college and finished it around twenty years later. For the feast day I talked up St. Thomas with Bruce and Kris at KVSS Radio, and they kindly posted the audio on their Aquilina page.

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Apostolate of the Apostate

I just picked up Robert Royal’s The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. A passage early in the book gives us an excellent follow-up to the charity-philanthropy post of a few days back. Royal is commenting specifically on Julian’s observation that “The impious Galileans support not only their poor; bur ours as well. Everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

The Roman emperor Julian (331-363 A.D.)…, called “the Apostate” because he had grown up as a Christian and then abandoned the faith for a rabid polytheism, crafted one of the strongest early critiques of Christian beliefs and made great efforts to stop Christianity’s growth as a social force in the empire. Yet Julian conceded, in a realistic appraisal of what he had to overcome, that the Christian churches were carrying out relief efforts among the poor, pagan as well as Christian, that the pagans themselves were not.

Julian — and the whole classical world — suffered two disadvantages in competing with the new faith. First there was no substantial set of principles within classical religion and philosophy to inspire such charitable works. The Stoics had come closest with their conception of the entire world as one city, the cosmopolis. But by Julian’s day, Platonism was the only real pagan philosophy still standing and even the old Stoic principle was a far cry from the active and lively sense of the universal brotherhood and sisterhood within the Kingdom of God that the Christians called caritas. Had such ideas been influential in pagan societies, they would not have faced a second problem: the absence of the social structures needed to implement large-scale works of charity. The empire and its municipalities sometimes provided a public dole. But love and empowerment of the common people is something quite different from a state subsidy. No ancient city, let alone the whole empire, had ever even attempted that. In the world of Late Antiquity, Christianity introduced not only new beliefs and ideas, but new social practices that transformed ancient Mediterranean life.

Julian’s biographer, Adrian Murdoch, has been posting Pope Benedict’s reflections on Julian’s philanthropic efforts. They’re worth reading. They’re here and here.

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Christians and Jews

When people accuse the Fathers of being “anti-Jewish,” I usually ask them to go back and reread both Christian and Jewish polemics from antiquity, and to consider these in their cultural context. It would be many centuries before public religious disputes followed Robert’s Rules of Order — or any rules for that matter. I don’t advocate a return to the old ways of dialogue, but we should cut the ancients a break. Both sides could be nasty. Yes, the Byzantines made life uncomfortable for the Jews. And, yes, in the Persian Empire, where Jews had the upper hand, it’s likely that they returned the favor.

Why do I pull the poptop on this can of worms? A new book, of course: Jesus in the Talmud by Peter Schäfer. Here’s the summary from Princeton University Press:

Scattered throughout the Talmud, the founding document of rabbinic Judaism in late antiquity, can be found quite a few references to Jesus–and they’re not flattering. In this lucid, richly detailed, and accessible book, Peter Schäfer examines how the rabbis of the Talmud read, understood, and used the New Testament Jesus narrative to assert, ultimately, Judaism’s superiority over Christianity.

The Talmudic stories make fun of Jesus’ birth from a virgin, fervently contest his claim to be the Messiah and Son of God, and maintain that he was rightfully executed as a blasphemer and idolater. They subvert the Christian idea of Jesus’ resurrection and insist he got the punishment he deserved in hell–and that a similar fate awaits his followers.

Schäfer contends that these stories betray a remarkable familiarity with the Gospels–especially Matthew and John–and represent a deliberate and sophisticated anti-Christian polemic that parodies the New Testament narratives. He carefully distinguishes between Babylonian and Palestinian sources, arguing that the rabbis’ proud and self-confident countermessage to that of the evangelists was possible only in the unique historical setting of Persian Babylonia, in a Jewish community that lived in relative freedom. The same could not be said of Roman and Byzantine Palestine, where the Christians aggressively consolidated their political power and the Jews therefore suffered.

There have been a number of balanced studies of the subject. I recommend Aphrahat and Judaism by Rabbi Jacob Neusner; John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century and Judaism and the Early Christian Mind, both by Robert Louis Wilken; and, as ever, Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity (especially the chapter on the “mission to the Jews”).

A few points to keep in mind when thinking about charges of “anti-Judaism” in the Fathers or “anti-Christianity” in the rabbis:

• These men were living in a hotly competitive religious environment, in which many people were converting from Judaism to Christianity — and vice versa.

• The Fathers were troubled because some Christians were keeping Jewish observances. The rabbis seem equally troubled by Christian influences on Jews.

• Both Jews and Christians knew that they were very close kin. Family disputes are always the nastiest. Ask any cop.

• The insulting rhetoric flowed both ways, usually beginning when one side felt free to get nasty. The nastiness often inspired responses in kind — that is, responses unkind.

It’s important that we know our history. But it’s also important that we learn from it and never repeat these episodes.

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People sometimes wonder why pagans so often got irritated with the Christians and Jews who lived in their neighborhoods. Rabbi Ken Spiro sheds some light on the matter by contrasting Hellenistic with Jewish ideals. Here’s a slice:

It is easy, while admiring the Greek contributions to civilization — its politics and philosophy — to forget what Greek society was really like. For example, we’ve heard of the “Spartan lifestyle,” but what did that mean in practice? Well, for starters, at an early age, like first grade, Spartan boys and girls were separated from their parents; they lived in military barracks where they were beaten, and not even given food so that they would learn to steal it. To be Spartan meant to be tough. The Athenians, not as tough as the Spartans, were not what you’d describe as “soft” either. For example, they thought nothing of killing infants (a common practice in all ancient civilizations even the “elevated” ones). One of the most influential thinkers in Western intellectual history — none other than Aristotle — argued in his Politics (VII.16) that killing children was essential to the functioning of society. He wrote: “There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed [i.e. exposed on the trash heap to die]. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state.” Note the tone of his statement. Aristotle isn’t saying “I like killing babies,” but he is making a cold, rational calculation: over-population is dangerous, this is the most expedient way to keep it in check.

Read the whole thing.

For further reading, try Jaroslav Pelikan’s Christianity and Classical Culture.

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Luke It Up in the Vatican Library

Back in October I was astonished to see the Bodmer Papyrus go on the auction block. I was surprised again, and pleased, to see it donated to the Vatican. Here’s Zenit on the donation:

Benedict XVI received as a gift to the Holy See one of the most ancient manuscripts of the Gospels, an artifact that demonstrates Scripture’s historical actuality.

The Pope was given the 14-15 Bodmer Papyrus (P75), dated between A.D. 175 and 225, on Monday by Frank Hanna and his family, of the United States.

“The papyrus contains about half of each of the Gospels of Luke and John. It was written in Egypt and perhaps used as a liturgical book,” explained Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, archivist and librarian of the Holy Roman Church, during the audience.

The manuscript previously belonged to the library of the Bodmer Foundation in Cologny, Switzerland, and is now in the Vatican Apostolic Library.

“The Pope’s library possesses the most ancient testimony of the Gospel of Luke and among the most ancient of the Gospel of John,” added the cardinal.

The Bodmer Papyrus contains 144 pages and is the oldest manuscript that contains the text of the two Gospels in one papyrus.

The Lord’s Prayer

L’Osservatore Romano commented that “almost certainly it was destined for a small community, a Greek-speaking Egyptian ‘parish’ that, as is habitual in all Christian liturgies, read the Gospel during the Eucharistic celebration.”

The oldest transcription of the Our Father, as recounted by Luke, is found in this papyrus.

Participants in the meeting explained that experts see the joining of Luke and John in one papyrus as a demonstration that for the first Christians communities, the Gospels formed a unity.

The document agrees with the Codex Vaticanus, a fourth-century edition of the Bible. The Bodmer Papyrus demonstrates, therefore, that the oldest versions of the New Testament that are preserved in their totality correspond with the Gospels that already circulated among the Christian communities centuries earlier.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, Bishop Raffaele Farina, prefect of the Vatican Library, and Gary Krupp, founder of the Pave the Way Foundation, which worked to bring about this gift, were present when the papyrus was donated to the Vatican.

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Christian Charity and Pagan Philanthropy

Rogue Classicism posts a call for academic papers on a fascinating topic. The summary speaks volumes about the difference Christians made in the ancient world, and the difference we can make today:

Scholars have reached consensuses that benefactions in the Graeco-Roman cities were not directed at the poorer segment of the society but at the citizen body at large and that the benefactors were not motivated by altruistic goals but by the desire of self-promotion. There has been a general tendency to emphasize the discontinuity between ancient euergetism and Christian charity. Recently … works have lent further support to this differentiation by bringing into focus such topics as the development of Christian rhetoric concerning poverty, invention of “the poor” and their acquisition of cosmic significance in late antiquity.

Good books on this subject: Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity; David Batson’s The Treasure Chest of the Early Christians: Faith, Care and Community from the Apostolic Age to Constantine the Great; and Igino Giordani’s The Social Message of the Early Church Fathers.

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Patristic Humor

Adrian Murdoch gives us more of Synesius on baldness. Here’s Adrian’s lead-up:

Pages and pages of po-faced discussion on the nature of Christ or impenetrable and allusive epistles that turn out to be little more than recommendations for jobs can, at times, become wearisome when reading late Roman writers. One of the great pleasures of Synesius is that he had a sense of humour. By far his most entertaining piece is his eulogy on baldness. His tongue remains firmly in his cheek throughout.

His argument is that a bald head is superior to a hairy head because it resembles a sphere which is the most perfect object in the universe. The more perfect an object is, the closer it is to its immutable form. Therefore, the bald head is more real than the hairy head

Do read on! It’s cheaper than Rogaine.