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Wilken, Thinkin’ and God

My companion this weekend, as I wait in the car for the children to emerge from this place or that, is Robert Louis Wilken’s Remembering the Christian Past, a collection of essays on the love of history and the desire for God. It’s a lovely book, highly recommended. Why? Because Wilken, better than anyone else alive, understands why we thrill to spend time with the Fathers. Here he invokes Matthew Arnold:

Commerce with the ancients appears to me to produce, in those who constantly practice it, a steadying and composing effect upon their judgment, not of literary works only, but of men and events in general. They are like persons who have had a very weighty and impressive experience; they are more truly than others under the empire of facts, and more independent of the language current among those with whom they live.

Wilken is one of my favorite contemporary authors. See also his more recent book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, which is the single bestselling non-Aquilina book bought through this site.

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The Crown Jules

Roger Pearse has posted a new translation of a chunk of Cyril of Alexandria’s whomping of Julian the Apostate.

If you’re interested in Julian, I recommend fellow blogger Adrian Murdoch‘s popular biography, The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World. I have a long review of it coming out soon in Touchstone, where I review books every month. Do subscribe!

A silly aside: Last year I posted a little sketch of the life of the Apostate and titled it “Julian Fries.” Now I’m one of the top results for spelling-challenged cooks who are Googling in search of a recipe for “Julienne fries.” I kid you not.

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Easter Duty

At the beginning of Lent, I announced that Loyola Press, publisher of my book The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence, was offering a seasonal 30% discount. I want to say again that the offer extends to the end of the Easter Season.

Loyola’s discount applies also to the Loyola Classics series, which I’ve often blogged upon, and two books by my youngest daughter’s beatific godfather, David Scott: The Catholic Passion: Rediscovering the Power and Beauty of the Faith and A Revolution of Love: The Meaning of Mother Teresa. Also check out the titles by the great and powerful Bob Lockwood, by Liz Kelly, and by Matthew Lickona. This is the stuff of a true Easter celebration. Think of it as a holy sale of obligation.

The discount is good for one-time use only and not valid on textbook or curriculum orders. The offer expires at the end of the Easter season, May 27, 2007.

TO GET THE DISCOUNT, make sure to enter the promotional code 2261.

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Nouveaux Riches

Sophia Institute Press has just re-released Henri Daniel-Rops’ What Is the Bible?, a good, intelligent introductory work that was originally produced for the Twentieth-Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism.

Daniel-Rops was a great historian and an immortal of the French Academy. He’s remembered and justly beloved for such popular historical studies as Daily Life in the Time of Jesus and The Book of Mary. His two-volume work The Church of Apostles and Martyrs was my early introduction to the world of the Church Fathers. Daniel-Rops is a lively storyteller, and his books are page-turners. I’m pleased to see so many of them in print, and others coming back into print. We live in great times.

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The Envelope, Please

A blessed Easter to all! And thanks to those of you (several thousands of you) who took the quiz to learn “Which Church Father Are You?” The quiz spread rather rapidly to many message boards and blogs, and Junior tracked its progress intermittently, sending me links to the more interesting discussions. I was amazed that certain blogs and boards tended to produce one type of Father — Jerome, for example, or Origen, or Justin. What’s amusing is that, no matter which Father turned up repeatedly, the quiz-takers concluded it was a fix. “Everybody comes up Origen.” “Everybody comes up Jerome.” “Everybody comes up Melito.” I think a run of Jeromes (or Justins, etc.) says more about their board than our quiz!

The most astute patrologists in the blogosphere saw the purpose of every possible answer and were able to blaze a quick trail to their favorite Father. (I’m thinking particularly of Danny Garland of Irish-Catholic and Dangerous.) Others confessed that they just kept taking the quiz till they got the guy they wanted. (Kind of like online dating, I guess.)

Which Father came in first? Melito of Sardis, and by far. It’s not surprising, since this is a patristics blog, and Melito was keyed to a love of history and tradition, a fierce loyalty to the ancestors.

Second place was, remarkably, almost a dead heat among Origen, Justin, and Jerome. There was minimal difference in their stats.

Tertullian groused in the depths of the cellar, a fact freighted, perhaps, with significance. (What’s way cool is that noted biblioblogger Dr. Jim West was one of those Tertullians, and proud of it.)

Even though it started as a lark, the quiz did lead to a fascinating discussion (in the commbox) about who is a Father and who ain’t. If you missed it, check it out.

If you’re eager to learn more, read the book!

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Holy Saturday

A very rich Holy Saturday homily comes to us (we think) from Epiphanius.

Something strange is happening … there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” . . .

You can read the rest by clicking here.

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What Killed Jesus?

The Gospels say little about the business of crucifixion. “And they crucified him” is all St. Mark offers (15:24), with no word of how it was done or how the cross tortured its victim.

The early Christians offered little more when they recited the Creed: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, died and was buried.”

The Crucifixion comes at the climax of the Christian drama. Yet tradition records the matter as little more than a fact. “They crucified him.” “He was crucified.” History provides no coroner’s report, no painstaking medical reconstruction.

Perhaps our first Christian ancestors could not bear to say any more. They had seen men crucified. They could walk to the outskirts of town if they wanted to count the cost — in blood and pain and humiliation — of their salvation.

Unlike Christians through most of history, we today have not grown up with the experience of public executions and public torture. Still, like the family of any murder victim, we feel the need to know the truth about our Savior and brother — not least because we believe He died for our sake.

Over the past 20 years, a friend of mine, Pittsburgh surgeon Jack McKeating, has applied his professional skills to this problem — reviewing the historical and archaeological evidence in light of recent medical research. Some years back, I interviewed him on the subject for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.

“Any serious Christian has to take an active interest in the passion of Jesus Christ,” McKeating told me. “Unfortunately, we’re often too dispassionate about it. We tend to think of it in unreal terms, as an abstraction. But it involved a real person who underwent an absolutely brutal experience out of love for me.”

McKeating traces his interest to the late 1980s, when he was away from home on a fellowship in surgical oncology.

“I was in a Bible study with three other surgeons,” he recalled, “a fundamentalist, a Methodist, a Baptist and me.” One morning, one of his colleagues brought “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” a 1986 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association.

That study gathered the descriptions of crucifixion from ancient sources. It analyzed the skeletal remains of crucified men, and it considered all the data in light of current medical research.

The JAMA study led McKeating to the classic text in the field, A Doctor at Calvary, an exhaustive account written by French Catholic surgeon Pierre Barbet. Barbet completed his book in 1949 after decades of research.

McKeating praises both studies for their scholarship and their unflinching care.

“Anyone who studies the matter has to start with these sources,” he said. “But keep in mind that it is a start. As we advance in medicine, we are able to learn still more about our Lord’s passion.”

How did crucifixion usually happen? Applying their medical knowledge to the historical data, doctors such as McKeating, Barbet and the JAMA team have attempted to reconstruct the events.

The ancient Romans had a special genius for torture. It helped them keep order in a vast empire. The public spectacle of extreme suffering — repeated with some regularity — served as a deterrent to would-be rebels and insurgents.

Crucifixion was the utmost refinement of the Roman art of torture. The Jewish historian Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths.” It was designed to cause the most pain in the most parts of the body over the longest period of time.

Crucifixion was humiliating, too, so it was usually reserved for slaves, lower-class criminals or those whose crimes were especially heinous. The stripped man was exposed, naked, to a boorish crowd that delighted in such spectacles. They cast stones at him, spat at him, jeered at him.

The end began when executioners extended the condemned man’s arms and bound them to a wooden beam. Sometimes, they would also drive nails through the man’s wrists at the highly sensitive median nerve. The executioner relied on the element of surprise for the first hammer blow. The victim was unlikely ever to have experienced such pain before. It was “the most unbearable pain that a man can experience,” Barbet concluded.

Nailing the second arm, however, could pose a problem, because the nervous system would instinctively recoil from any repetition of that pain. The executioner would need to struggle against an arm rigidly resistant to his efforts. All of this wrangling, involuntary on the part of the victim, would intensify the pain in the arm already nailed.

The beam then was attached to a pole. Every shift of the beam renewed the pain in the median nerve. But all of that was just a prelude to the real torture of crucifixion.

The victim found himself suspended above the ground, his body slumped forward, his knees bent and his feet positioned as if he were standing on tiptoe. That position made it almost impossible for him to draw a breath.

“Crucifixion stretches the chest cavity open,” McKeating explained, “and the weight of the body pulls down on the diaphragm so the lungs are kept open. It requires great effort to breathe in and even greater effort to exhale — which is normally a fairly passive process.”

The victim could not breathe inward or outward without lifting his body up by the nails in his wrists and pushing up on the nail in his feet. With every breath, then, he felt the coarse metal tearing at his nerves.

Gradually, his limbs cramped and weakened. As he was less able to lift himself up, he began, slowly, to suffocate.

A victim of crucifixion alternated between the panicked sense of asphyxiation and the searing pain of the nails in his flesh. Relief from one inevitably brought about the other.

In a strong man, this could go on for many hours, even days. If the Romans wanted to accelerate the process, they would break the victim’s legs so he could no longer push himself upward to take a breath.

“Jesus was probably a strong man,” McKeating said. “He was relatively young, He worked hard, and He tended to travel by foot. But by the time He reached Calvary, He had undergone many hours of preliminary tortures that alone might have killed him.”

In the Garden of Gethsemane, “His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Lk 22:44). The JAMA article, following Barbet, attributes this to a phenomenon called hematidrosis or hemohidrosis — hemorrhaging into the sweat glands. This is a rare condition that occurs in people at the extremes of human emotion. It leaves the skin very tender and highly sensitive to pain.

Jesus would have keenly felt every blow as His captors “mocked him and beat him” (Lk 22:63). The beatings continued through long hours in which He was also forced to walk from one interrogation to another — before the Sanhedrin, before Pilate, before Herod and again before Pilate. The JAMA research concludes that He walked two-and-a-half miles during that sleepless night.

Pilate ordered Jesus to be flogged, and Roman flogging alone could kill a man. A typical whip of cords was studded with metal, sharp animal bones or shards of pottery. It was designed to bruise and tear the skin. Often, a man was whipped by two torturers, one on each side, while he was bound to a post or pillar. It was here that Jesus probably suffered His greatest blood loss.

His back, torn open by the Romans, then had to bear the rough wood of the crossbeam, which probably weighed 75 to 125 pounds. He had to carry the burden along an uneven roadway from Pilate’s praetorium to the hill of Calvary, a third of a mile. Surely, He fell often.

“Some people say that Jesus’ suffering was somehow easier because he was God,” McKeating said. “But that’s not so. Many theologians believe He suffered in a greater way because He had perfect knowledge of what was happening. Also, His senses would have been more acute and more sensitive to pain because they were not at all dulled, as ours are, by sin and self-indulgence.”

What killed Jesus?

“I think it’s multifactorial,” McKeating said. “I think the proximate cause of death was probably suffocation — asphyxia. But I think the end came relatively swiftly — just three long hours — because our Lord was probably in shock before He was actually crucified.

“After the exposure, the emotional duress, the severe beating and then the scourging, He was probably in Class 3 shock, out of a possible 4.”

A great physiologist once described shock as the rude unhinging of the cellular machinery of our bodies.

“The technical definition,” said McKeating, “is that it’s inadequate perfusion of blood to the tissues of our body.

Our bodies normally have five liters of blood. McKeating said that “in a typical Roman scourging, a man would have lost a liter and a half.”

Shock would have weakened Him and left Him anxious and confused, hastening the end.

The Gospels suggest other factors, McKeating said. “After Jesus died, the soldier’s lance thrust brought forth blood and water (Jn 19:34). Where did the water come from? Probably pericardial effusion. Fluid would have built up from internal injuries, pulmonary contusions, bruises, beatings, and it would have filled His chest cavity or the sac around His heart. Every time the heart would beat, then, it couldn’t expand the way it needed to, and it couldn’t fill up. Eventually, it would stop.”

Forensic scientists say that the better we know what killed someone, the more likely we are to find out who killed him.

Who killed Jesus? After a decade-and-a-half of study, McKeating doesn’t hesitate to respond.

“I did,” he said. “My sins did.”

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Funeral for a Friend

Tony at Apocryphicity has rounded up that rumored account of Jesus’ funeral. Here’s his summary:

Joseph of Arimathea is given the body of Jesus for burial. Nicodemus hears of this and comes to Joseph and offers his assistance in the burial. The two bring a burial cloth and ointments and take the body down from the cross. Joseph tells Nicodemus that Jesus appeared to him (the following few sentences are unclear). Joseph reports that the priests of the temple commented on how strange that Jesus’ kin had not come to prepare Jesus for burial. Nicodemus goes to the temple to request Jesus’ body (next several sentences unclear). Nicodemus comes from the temple and places the body of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph. They roll the stone over the entrance and return to their homes. After three days Jesus rises. The priests and scribes say that Joseph and the disciples stole the body (the next few sentences are unclear but there is mention of “the property of James”). The priests and scribes incite a mob against Joseph and they bring Joseph to the high priests. They ask Joseph why he has stolen the body. Joseph responds that he could not take the body because of the guards posted there by Pilate. The priests and the people are furious and go to Pilate accusing Joseph.

Read the whole post.

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Which Church Father Are You?

I’m sure you were wondering when we’d get around just such a self-help test. By now you’ve figured out the color of your parachute and the season of your wardrobe. It’s time to figure out your place in the early Church. For each question, choose ONE answer that best describes your position.

When you hear the co-worker in the next cubicle utter heresy, you instinctively…
a. take him aside and carefully demonstrate to him that the orthodox position is really the most reasonable.
b. hit him with a mallet and then question his masculinity.
c. guide him verse-by-verse through the Book of Exodus, observing often that the plot is clearly an allegory of your co-worker’s life.
d. suggest that the current troubles in the Holy Land are his fault.

You celebrate your birthday…
a. always on the date you were born.
b. always on the day you were born (e.g., Tuesday).
c. never, because birthdays (like many other things) make you irritable.
d. by debating a pagan.

Your preferred home is…
a. Athens.
b. Jerusalem.
c. a cave.
d. a symbol of heaven, whose historical and geographical position is of relatively little importance.

Your guilty pleasure:
a. Cicero.
b. self-mutilation.
c. wearing a pallium.
d. intractable liturgical conservatism.

You think marriage…
a. is useful for the propagation of future celibates.
b. is primarily an allegory.
c. should be forbidden to widows.
d. bore the brunt of the consequences of Adam’s Fall.

If you could change anything, it would be…
a. everything.
b. Change? What’s change?
c. the emperor’s mind.
d. Augustine, Ambrose, and Rufinus, for starters.
e. Alexandria and Caesarea