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Great Scott!

The bishops are gathered in Rome for the Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. On Tuesday, my friend and colleague Scott Hahn got quoted by the apostolic vicar of Benghazi, Libya.

It is the Church which came before the Scriptures; the Church that produced the Scriptures with divine assistance, and that preserved their integrity through the threats of persecution and heresy – it is the Church that gathered the Scriptures together in a book – a book that sustains all who call themselves Christian.

The passage is from his book Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith.

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Teas and Isis

In the New York Review of Books, William Dalrymple (of just renown) explores The Egyptian Connection — the genetic link between the ancient Christian cultures of Egypt and of the British Isles.

One of the earliest known Insular gospel books, the Cuthbert Gospels, is bound and sewn in a specifically Coptic manner, which Michelle Brown believes indicates “an actual learning/teaching process” linking Egypt and Northumbria. The same process is hinted at in the Book of Kells, which contains an image of the Virgin suckling the Christ child clearly taken from a Coptic original: the virgo lactans was a specifically Coptic piece of iconography borrowed from the pharaonic image of Isis suckling the infant Horus. The Irish wheel cross, the symbol of Celtic Christianity, has recently been shown to have been a Coptic invention, depicted on a Coptic burial pall of the fifth century, three centuries before the design first appears in Scotland and Ireland.

A growing body of evidence suggests that contact between the Mediterranean and early Christian Britain was surprisingly frequent. Egyptian pottery —perhaps originally containing wine or olive oil—has been found during excavations at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, the supposed birthplace of King Arthur, while the Irish Litany of Saints remembers “the seven monks of Egypt [who lived] in Disert Uilaig” on the west coast of Ireland. Travel guides in circulation in early Christian Britain gave accounts of the Egyptian monasteries.

We’ve dipped our toe into these waters before.

Thanks to Joe Heim for the link. He and his California colleague Paul Crawford have been giving me a tuition-free education via email!

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Better Than a Circus

At the newly re-opened Bread and Circuses blog, Adrian Murdoch offers further reflections on my book Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols. Among them: “I confess that I have not moved his book off my desk since. This is not just because I rarely tidy up, but because it really is a handy volume for anyone interested in early Christian art and symbols.”

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The Ancients Get Plastered

While I was in Washington last week, the archeologists were digging overtime.

Turkish Daily News says: “Church Discovered In Orhaneli One Of World’s Earliest.” (They mean “the first church constructed after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity,” so fourth century.)

The University of British Columbia tells of a site in Sicily that yielded “a tomb, skeletons and burial rites with both Christian and pagan elements.” Specifically:

A hole in the stone slab covering the tomb allowed visitors to pour libations for the dead.

“This shows that the long-established, originally pagan, rite of offering libations to the dead clearly continued into early Byzantine times,” observes Wilson.

Yet, the presence of a Christian cross on a lamp found in the room and on the underside of a grave slab suggests that the deceased were Christian. As well, the skeletons were wrapped in plaster, a practice believed to be Christian for preserving the body for resurrection.

“It is the first plaster burial recorded in Sicily, although the practice is known from Christian communities in North Africa,” says Wilson.

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Grain Elevator

Great news: Father Michael Giesler’s Grain of Wheat — the third novel in his trilogy on Christian Rome in the second century — is finally available. I read it in draft and loved it, as I loved the first two installments, Junia and Marcus. (I talked about those books here.) Here’s the publisher’s summary:

Set in the second century, Grain of Wheat takes you into the heroic lives of the early Christians. Along the way, it shows the beauty and dignity of the Christian family, with the power of the vocation to celibacy — a charism lived not only by priests and bishops, but by many of the lay faithful. These brave men and women, both single and married, followed Christ and spread his Kingdom while remaining in society. Through their courageous faith an entire culture was transformed, one person at a time, one family at a time.

Here’s my jacket blurb:

I loved Grain of Wheat, and so did my teenaged daughter. It’s a highly imaginative, yet historically faithful entry into the lives of the early Christians. To read these pages is to live for a few hours in the world of Saint Justin Martyr — to live with an unforgettable Roman family and their fascinating friends and adversaries.

Now my other teenage daughter has taken up the trilogy. In fact, she’s two-thirds of the way through, and just beginning Grain of Wheat. She’s passed the addiction on to her friends — and their mom!

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At the Disputations blog, John da Fiesole (aka Tom Kreitzberg) has posted a kind review of my book Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols.

Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols … is a wonderful collection of illustrated essays on twenty-five Christian symbols used — in churches, on sarcophagi, as decoration, as graffiti — in the first few centuries of the Church…

We’re all familiar with some of the symbols he describes — the cross, certainly, and the fish, and I’d guess we’ve all seen the Chi-Rho or labarum even if we don’t know what’s up with it — but I suspect few of us see them in quite the way our ancestors did.

A book about symbols relies heavily on the illustrations, and Lea Marie Ravotti does a marvelous job. Nearly every page has a drawing of an ancient fresco, statue, coin, carving, or mosaic; the styles are as varied as the sources. From the wall scratchings of a pilgrim to the sculpting of an artistic genius, they make plain the rich symbolic heritage Christians may, and ought to, claim in our own age of imagery.

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Oxford Movement

We (at the St. Paul Center) are co-sponsoring a conference at Oxford University Nov. 1. Can you make it?

A landmark theological conference with Dr Scott Hahn the popular American writer and biblical scholar, which also features Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols, leading Biblical scholar Michael Waldstein, and Adrian Walker the translator of the Pope’s book on Jesus Christ, will take place at the Catholic Chaplaincy of Oxford University opposite Christ Church College on Saturday 1 November 2008. It is organized by the Centre for Faith and Culture in Oxford, directed by Stratford Caldecott, and co-sponsored by the St Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio.

The purpose of the conference is to focus attention on the principles underlying the Pope’s ongoing reform of the reform of Catholic liturgy. The relationship between SCRIPTURE AND LITURGY underpins the Pope’s teaching on both. The Pope reminds us that ‘The privileged place for reading and listening to the Word of God is in the liturgy.’ Furthermore, that liturgy is cosmic, for the love of the Trinity moves the stars. These principles are inspiring the new liturgical movement.

Dr Hahn is Professor of Theology and Scripture at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he has taught since 1990, and is the founder and director of the Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology. In 2005, he was appointed as the Pope Benedict XVI Chair of Biblical Theology and Liturgical Proclamation at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The author of numerous books and articles, he speaks widely in the United States but only rarely in the UK.

The conference also provides a rare opportunity to hear Dr Michael Waldstein, who will have been attending this year’s Synod on Scripture in Rome as a peritus. Formerly the President of the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, he is currently the Max Seckler Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University in Florida. Dr Adrian Walker, a member of the editorial board of Communio, is also rarely in England: after teaching for some years at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, he now lives in Germany and works as a translator. Aidan Nichols OP is, of course, well known as writer of numerous books on theology and liturgy, including the leading study of the thought of Pope Benedict XVI.

As the world reels from the effects of the global economic crisis, more people than ever are turning back to religion. The Catholic Church is meanwhile recovering her ancient heritage and addressing the modern world with a new confidence. “Let us seek to learn on earth those truths which will remain ever valid in heaven” (Pope Benedict XVI).

Further information from the Second Spring website where you can make a reservation and see the relevant fees for the conference.

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The Magic Bowl

I was away all last week — without laptop, newspapers, or other connections. Even my cellphone reception was minimal. But, yes, I saw the sensationalist coverage of the Magical Jesus bowl. In case you didn’t, here’s the scoop from the Discovery Channel:

A team of scientists led by renowned French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio recently announced that they have found a bowl, dating to between the late 2nd century B.C. and the early 1st century A.D., that, according to an expert epigrapher, could be engraved with the world’s first known reference to Christ.

If the word “Christ” refers to the Biblical Jesus Christ, as is speculated, then the discovery may provide evidence that Christianity and paganism at times intertwined in the ancient world.

The full engraving on the bowl reads, “DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS,” which has been interpreted by French epigrapher and professor emeritus Andre Bernand as meaning either, “by Christ the magician” or “the magician by Christ.”

“It could very well be a reference to Jesus Christ, in that he was once the primary exponent of white magic,” Goddio, co-founder of the Oxford Center of Maritime Archaeology, said.

He and his colleagues found the object during an excavation of the underwater ruins of Alexandria’s ancient great harbor. The Egyptian site also includes the now submerged island of Antirhodos, where Cleopatra’s palace may have been located.

Egyptologist David Fabre, a member of the European Institute of Submarine Archaeology, thinks a “magus” could have practiced fortune-telling rituals using the bowl. The Book of Mathew in the Bible refers to “wisemen,” or Magi, believed to have been prevalent in the ancient world.

According to Fabre, the bowl is also very similar to one depicted in two early Egyptian earthenware statuettes that are thought to show a soothsaying ritual.

“It has been known in Mesopotamia probably since the 3rd millennium B.C.,” Fabre said. “The soothsayer interprets the forms taken by the oil poured into a cup of water in an interpretation guided by manuals.”

He added that the individual, or “medium,” then goes into a hallucinatory trance when studying the oil in the cup.

“They therefore see the divinities, or supernatural beings appear that they call to answer their questions with regard to the future,” he said.
The magus might then have used the engraving on the bowl to legitimize his supernatural powers by invoking the name of Christ, the scientists theorize.

Goddio explained, “It is very probable that in Alexandria they were aware of the existence of Jesus” and of his associated legendary miracles. Based on Biblical texts, these included transforming water into wine, multiplying loaves of bread, conducting miraculous health cures, and the story of the resurrection.

While not discounting the Jesus Christ interpretation, other researchers have offered different possible interpretations for the engraving, which was made on the thin-walled ceramic bowl after it was fired, since slip was removed during the process.

Bert Smith, a professor of classical archaeology and art at Oxford University, suggests the engraving might be a dedication, or present, made by a certain “Chrestos” belonging to a possible religious association called Ogoistais.

Klaus Hallof, director of the Institute of Greek inscriptions at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy, added that if Smith’s interpretation proves valid, the word “Ogoistais” could then be connected to known religious groups that worshipped early Greek and Egyptian gods and goddesses, such as Hermes, Athena and Isis.

Hallof additionally pointed out that historians working at around, or just after, the time of the bowl, such as Strabon and Pausanias, refer to the god “Osogo” or “Ogoa,” so a variation of this might be what’s on the bowl. It is even possible that the bowl refers to both Jesus Christ and Osogo.
Fabre concluded, “It should be remembered that in Alexandria, paganism, Judaism and Christianity never evolved in isolation. All of these forms of religion (evolved) magical practices that seduced both the humble members of the population and the most well-off classes.”

“It was in Alexandria where new religious constructions were made to propose solutions to the problem of man, of God’s world,” he added. “Cults of Isis, mysteries of Mithra, and early Christianity bear witness to this.”

The bowl is currently on public display in the exhibit “Egypt’s Sunken Treasures” at the Matadero Cultural Center in Madrid, Spain, until November 15.

A few observations: (1) We’re speaking here of one possible reading of a rough inscription that might refer to the Christ we all know and love, but might not, and there’s no way of knowing — no way we’ll ever know. This story is full of “if” and “could.” (2) It’s no secret that magicians tried to acquire the power of Christ and the Apostles (see Acts 8:9-19 and 13:6-10); nor did these attempts end with the apostolic era (see the book Ancient Christian Magic). (3) Knowing (as we do) that the name of Jesus even today gets dragged into all manner of superstition, we shouldn’t be surprised. (4) Since Jesus did work wonders, it was natural for some of the ancients to associate him with magicians. In paleochristian art, he is sometimes shown holding a wand; he is also depicted as a conventional healer and conventional philosopher. (5) Those are pretty wild speculative leaps from the Alexandrian cup to the Persian Magi and then to Jesus the Christ. As Peter Gabriel might say: Drink up, dreamers, you’re running dry.

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Monastic Fantastic

Smithsonian reports on the “rediscovery” of a patristic-era monastery in Iraq.

In Iraq, a Monastery Rediscovered
Near Mosul, War Has Helped and Hindered Efforts to Excavate the 1,400-Year-Old Dair Mar Elia Monastery

By James Foley

A soldier scaled the fragile wall of the monastery and struck a pose. His buddies kept shouting up to him to move over some.

He shifted to the left and stood the stadia rod straight to register his position for the survey laser on the tripod below.

The 94th Corps of Engineers of Fort Leonard Wood, whose members normally sprint to their data points in full body armor and Kevlar helmets, are making a topographical map of the ancient Assyrian monastery that until recently had been occupied by the Iraqi Republican Guard and then by the 101st Airborne Division in the once verdant river valley near Mosul.

The Dair Mar Elia Monastery is finally getting some of the expert attention that the 1,400-year-old sacred structure deserves.

Read more…