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Darkness at Noon

[Warning: this post is longer than usual...]

Some readers left some comments about the 3 hour midday darkness which the Gospels report happened during the Crucifixion of Jesus.

St Andy:

I believe God uses natural processes to do His work. Actually, He defines those processes!  This means that when a blood moon rose at Christ's crucifixion, God planned it billions of years ago as rocks and plasma tumbled through space, so the moon would rise in an eclipse on 1 special day.

St. James:

Andy wrote about the crucifixion and the described eclipse; I believe 3 of the gospels state that the sun darkened. Historical records outside of the gospels do not mention an eclipse. It seems that an eclipse during a full moon would be something that would be recorded somewhere. I understand that sky darkening may be attributed to literary technique. There seems to be alot of conflicting information within the bible, how does one know when a conflict is important or when information is symbolic? (in regards to an eclipse, if that happened and that was a recorded event around the world it would be amazing)

It's natural to wonder about this sort of thing, but one shouldn't presuppose a given conclusion in advance!  Wikipedia says in a peremptory way that "Modern scholars see the darkness as a literary creation rather than a historical event," but this might tell us more about modern scholars' attitudes towards miracle claims then it tells us about the actual historical evidence...

I. Some dogs that didn't bark

Let's start with the obvious negative.  The Chinese were much more meticulous than the West in recording astronomical phenomena such as eclipses (their records being very accurate but not perfect).  China is about 4-6 timezone-hours east of Jerusalem so if the Darkness had been worldwide (as opposed to say, just Jerusalem or just the Roman empire) they should have been able to notice and record it!   So this probably means that the Darkness could not have extended all the way to China.

The Darkness is also not mentioned by any contemporary Roman historians in surviving works.  Which ones might reasonably have mentioned it, given the nature of their works and the degree to which they have been preserved?  Consulting Wikipedia's List of Historians, I think the only historians on this list with sufficient scope, writing at the correct time period, are Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus.  (And if the Darkness were confined to Jerusalem, perhaps it falls only within the potential scope of Josepehus' work.)

The fact that these historians didn't mention the event provides some evidence that the event didn't happen.  But not an enormous amount—this is the infamously dangerous Argument from Silence, after all.

You might ask: "But if there were a huge miracle refuting Naturalism and proving Christianity to be true, why wouldn't everyone write extensively about it?"  But that's a very modern thing to say.  The ancients were not as aware of all possible causes of climate phenomena as we are, and they also mostly thought that supernatural omens did occur from time to time for various reasons.  They were generally not philosophical Naturalists in the modern sense, and even those that were (like the Epicureans) probably thought a great many things possible which we now believe to be impossible.

Most people, hearing about the Darkness, probably would have said something like: "Huh, that's weird" and then went and thought about something else, more politically interesting.  You know, like people do.  Except for those who later read the Gospels, there would not necessarily be any particular reason to connect the event to the crucifixion of a Jewish prophet occurring elsewhere at the same time.

Pliny the Elder (23-79) was not a historian, but he was a naturalist (in the other sense, a keen observer of nature) who was interested in astronomical events, and what he wrote about the subject is telling:

Eclipses of the sun also take place which are portentous and unusually long, such as occurred when Cæsar the Dictator was slain, and in the war against Antony, the sun remained dim for almost a whole year.

Apparently this event was also recorded by Plutarch, Tibullus, and Suetonius, so it seems likely this account is based on some real phenomenon.  It was obviously not an actual solar eclipse, but rather some meteorological phenomenon, perhaps related to vulcanism.  Anyway, far from denying the existence of the Darkness at Calvary, he makes it sound like he was aware of additional examples of strange eclipses, and quotes this one as just the most notable example.

So at this point skeptics need to choose their tactic: one cannot consistently argue both (a) that various pagan parallels to the Darkness show that this is the sort of unreliable story the ancients made up all the time, and (b) that the Darkness would have been so amazing to the ancients, that it would have been mentioned by all of them one of the most notable events to have ever occurred.

II. The positive historical sources

On the other hand, it is also not true that "Historical records outside of the gospels do not mention an eclipse."  Actually, two different early non-Christian Roman historians, Thallus (1st or 2nd century AD) and Phlegon of Tralles (2nd century AD) both appear to have mentioned the Darkness.  In addition, Tertullian claims that the Darkness was noted in the official Roman annals.

Unfortunately, like many other ancient books, these writings have not survived, but they are referenced or quoted by other sources.  These later sources are Christian authors, so a skeptic might accuse them of simply making up these other sources.  That seems implausible to me in this case, but the possibility must be taken into account.  Obviously this evidence would be more impressive if the original works had actually survived, but it is wrong to say that there are no historical records which mention the event.  So the evidence is not as strong as it might be, but it is there.

In addition, we have the evidence of the Gospels themselves, which are after all historical documents with actual historical data, and which scholars with no bone to pick often use to establish facts about first century Judaism.  Skeptics often mock when Christians say things like "X is true because the Bible says so", saying that this is circular reasoning.  But they don't seem to have problems with arguments like "X is true because Josephus says so", and nobody thinks Josephus was divinely inspired.  Even if we decide to treat the Bible just like we treat any other historical sources, we still have to go and do that!  A demand by skeptics that events should be believed in only if they are mentioned by nonbiblical sources, is just as unreasonable as when Christians expect those not yet converted to Christianity to accept things just because they are in the Bible.

For example, when people say "Luke must be wrong about the timing of the Census of Quirinius, because it disagrees with Josephus", it never seems to occur to them that Josephus might be wrong, when he disagrees with St. Luke.  If it were two secular historians, both of these scenarios would presumably be considered equally likely.  (Or more likely still, if we knew everything that both historians knew, we would see how the contradiction could be resolved with both of them being right somehow).

II.A. Biblical Sources

Let's back up a bit and look at our earliest Biblical documentation for this event:

“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your religious festivals into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day." (Amos 8:9-10)

Oops!  We seem to have backed up a bit too far.  This is actually a prophecy from the 8th century BC prophet Amos.  Some skeptical scholars are happy to accuse the Gospel writers of just putting in fulfilled prophecies without regard to whether they actually happened.  But we can't just decide in advance it didn't happen, we need to decide based on the evidence.

The earliest Gospel, that of St. Mark, says:

It was the third hour [9 am] when they crucified him...

At the sixth hour [noon], darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour [3 pm].  And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”(which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"...

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.  The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:25, 33-34, 38-39)

Apart from not telling us when the Crucifixion began, the Gospel of St. Matthew is similar but adds that there was an Earthquake and also a mini-Resurrection:

The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.  They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.  (Matt 27:51-53)

We can tell that this account isn't based solely on copying Mark, because more details are added.  While the curtain being torn, and the account of other dead people besides Jesus being resurrected and appearing to people (presumably only to certain people and only temporarily, as in the case of Jesus) are remarkable, we will primarily be focussing on the Darkness and the Earthquake as the two signs which might have been observable to those outside the city.  St. Luke has:

It was now about the sixth hour [noon], and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour [3 pm], for the sun stopped shining.  And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.  (Luke 23:44-46)

Apparently there is some textual discrepancy concerning the bold piece: in some early manuscripts St Luke says that the "sun was eclipsed".  But in any case the event couldn't possibly have been a normal solar eclipse, since these always occur at a New Moon while Passover (being the 15th of Nisan on a lunar calendar) always occurs during a full moon.

Furthermore, a total solar eclipse lasts for at most 7-and-a-half minutes, while this event is stated to have occurred over 3 hours.  (Ancient people, not having watches, generally were not nearly so precise about time measurements as we are, but you'd think they could tell the difference between minutes and hours.)

From other biblical data, we know that the two possible years for Jesus' death were AD 30 and 33.  (It can't have been 31 or 32 seeing that Jesus was crucified on a Friday on or just before Passover.)  But according to NASA, there was no total (or annular) solar eclipse scheduled on either year anywhere in the Roman world (the nearest being in November, AD 29; in the right place and the wrong time).   Hence, if the Gospel accounts (or the extrabiblical sources reviewed below) are accurate, it can only have been a miraculous and/or meteorological phenomenon, not a true solar eclipse of the type that always takes place at the new moon.

There may possibly also be a reference to the Darkness in the book of Acts, also by St. Luke.  In his first sermon preaching the Resurrection on the Jewish Feast of Pentecost 50 days after Jesus' Resurrection, St. Peter quoted from the prophet St. Joel:

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose.  It’s only nine in the morning!  No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

 ‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.  This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.  But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.  (Acts 2:14-24)

The quotation from Joel is all about how God is going to pour out the Spirit, in a way that transcends gender and class divisions, but it also has this suggestive bit about the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood.  Presumably if the sun actually had been darkened at the Crucifixion, this would help explain why Peter chose this passage and why a lot of people responded.

On the other hand, there isn't any documented evidence of a blood moon (a moon with a reddish appearance) around the time of the Crucifixion.  Apparently there was a partial eclipse that evening, which some claim could have resulted in the moon appearing red, however, this does not seem terribly plausible.  The most apparently sober-minded refutation of this claim I could easily find is from Answers in Genesis of all places, a Young Earth Creationist (i.e. crazy science) website which I cannot recommend getting any scientific fact from.  But if even they think the Blood-Moon/Lunar-eclipse theory is implausible, it probably is.  Which is not to say there couldn't have been a red-colored moon (for any number of atmospheric reasons, not to mention miracles) but we have no historical evidence for this.

II.B. Thallus

Now for the nonbiblical sources.  First, Thallus, as referenced by St. Sextus Julius Africanus, as quoted in turn by St. George Syncellus.  This third-hand reference is obviously not ideal in terms of evidence, but as far as I can tell ancient historians are willing to take this type of historical evidence seriously in non-supernatural contexts.

Now Thallus was a historian who wrote a series of history books in Greek.  Unfortunately these books are lost and we only have fragments recorded by other authors, but there's enough of those to make it clear he was a real and respected historian.  Some people identify him with a Samaritan "Thallus" which would place him in the first century, but apparently the evidence for this is weak.  As his Wikipedia article says:

The identification sometimes made with a certain Thallus of Samaria who is mentioned in some editions of Josephus' Antiquities (18.167) fails because that name only appears in those editions because of an idiosyncratic alteration of the text by John Hudson in 1720. Until Hudson's time all texts had ALLOS (meaning "another") not THALLOS.

On the other hand, he can be no later than the 2nd century since he is quoted in Tertullian's Apologeticus (197 AD).

There is also a question about when Thallus' history actually ended.  Again Wikipedia informs us:

Eusebius of Caesarea in a list of sources mentions his work:

From the three books of Thallus, in which he collects (events) briefly from the fall of Ilion to the 167th Olympiad.

However the text is preserved in an Armenian translation where many of the numerals are corrupt. The fall of Troy is 1184 BC, but the editors, Petermann and Karst, highlight that the end-date of the 167th Olympiad (109 BC) is contradicted by George Syncellus, who quotes Julius Africanus, and suggest that the end-date should read "217th Olympiad", a change of one character in Armenian.

So we have a bit of an issue in that, on the one hand the supposed quote from Thallus seems to be later than when Eusebius said the book ended; on the other hand this could easily have been a numerical corruption.  And obviously the end date has to be later, if people are quoting stuff from the book coming from after 109 BC.

Since Syncellus's text also mentions Phlegon, I'll introduce him before providing the quote.

II.C. Phlegon

Second, Phlegon of Tralles.  He was a a freedman of the emperor Hadrian and a historian who lived during the 2nd century, who seems to have been particularly interested in marvels and rare events, his two extant works being On Marvels and On Lived Persons.  I haven't read through either of them, but if you look at the blurb for this modern translation of the Marvels book, I think you'll get the idea:

The Book of Marvels, a compilation of marvellous events of a grotesque, bizarre or sensational nature, was composed in the second century A.D. by Phlegon of Tralles, a Greek freedman of the Roman emperor Hadrian. This remarkable text is the earliest surviving work of pure sensationalism in Western literature. The Book is arranged thematically: Ghosts; Sex-Changers and Hermaphrodites; Finds of Giant Bones; Monstrous Births; Births from Males; Amazing Multiple Births; Abnormally Rapid Development of Human Beings; Discoveries of Live Centaurs.

While it might be a bit embarrassing to Christians that the Darkness ended up being written up by a semi-tabolidic author, you might also ask, what other type of Roman genre would it end up in?

Well, apparently it ended up in his (presumably more serious, but who can say?) Collection of Chronicles and List of Olympian Victors instead (a book reviewed here by Photius I, Bishop of Constantinople).  Phlegon's discussion of the Darkness and the Earthquake is quoted/paraphrased by at least 7 different later authors (Sts. Africanus, Origen, Eusebius, Apollinaris—yes the heretical one, Philopon, Agapius, and Michael the Syrian).  The variety of authors quoting him, with broad consistency about certain details, makes it highly probable that he wrote something very similar to what is attributed to him.

Phlegon seems to have mentioned both the Darkness and the Earthquake.  (St. Michael, the latest of these authors, claims that Phlegon also mentioned the Resurrection of the Dead in Jerusalem, but I think this is very suspicious and should probably be discounted.)

Assessing the relevance of this evidence from a Bayesian perspective, I think it is highly relevant that Phlegon added additional material, which cannot have come from the Gospels, e.g. buildings toppling in Nicea (same town where the deity of Christ was affirmed in the Nicene Creed).  This indicates that he had some other source for the Darkness, besides simply believing whatever was related in the Christian Gospels.  Indeed, it is unclear if the original Phlegon text actually mentioned Jesus or the Gospels as being connected with the Darkness and Earthquake (although St. Origen tells us that Phlegon did write about Jesus in his Chronicles).

II.D. Enough stalling, show me the quotes!

Now for the actual money quotes, the first several of which can be found at this online compilation at, but I found some more, which were missed by that guy.  Roughly in chronological order of the primary Christian source:

1. St. George Syncellus (9th century) quotes this except from St. Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160 – c. 240) which mentions both Thallus and Phlegon:

On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down.  This darkness Thallus in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.  For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Saviour falls on the day before the Passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun.  And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun?  Let that opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour [noon] to the ninth [3:00]—manifestly that one of which we speak.  But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending of rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe?  Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period.  But it was a darkness induced by God, because the Lord happened then to suffer.

Some points to notice here are that:

a) Thallus is not directly quoted but is merely mentioned as having tried to explain the Darkness as a solar eclipse (which is obviously wrong).  Now people don't usually insert totally fake critical arguments into their works in order to refute them.  Unfair caricatures and straw man arguments, sure.  But that's different from totally making up a counter-argument and stuffing it into somebody's mouth.  So Thallus very probably said something along these lines.

b) We don't know for sure whether Thallus obtained the information about the eclipse independently or was just responding to the Gospels.  But given his attempt to explain it as a solar eclipse, he seems to have believed the Darkness was a real event, not an invention of the Christians.

c) Information from Phlegon is also mentioned, but it does not seem to be a direct quote.  Some of the quotes below mention the 6th hour but not the 9th hour, so it is possible that Africanus got carried away and interpolated that information from the Gospels.

[Another discussion of this passage is by St. William Lane Craig here.  I cribbed the translation from his website but there's an alternate translation at texcavation.]

2. St. Origen, in his book (248) arguing against the 2nd century anti-Christian writer Celsus, writes that:

And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose kingship Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles.

Previously, in the same book, he tells us Phlegon mentioned Christ in another context:

Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which refer to Peter, as if they referred to Jesus), but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions.

and he later summarizes by saying that

He imagines also that both the earthquake and the darkness were an invention; but regarding these, we have in the preceding pages, made our defence, according to our ability, adducing the testimony of Phlegon, who relates that these events took place at the time when our Saviour suffered.

The most natural construction of the last sentence is that Phlegon said the Darkness occurred during Christ's Crucifixion, but it is possible that Origen merely means that Phlegon gave the time, and it happens to agree.

But Origen's testimony regarding Phlegon cuts both ways, because in his commentary on Matthew (available in bad pdf scans of the Latin here), he also says that

Phlegon indeed has given some account in his Chronicles, of an eclipse that was in the reign of Tiberius Caesar, but he never intimated that this was at the full moon.

and in this commentary he argues that the events at the passion had to be localized in Jerusalem, in order to account for it not being noticed elsewhere!

It's unclear why Origen took such radically different tactics in these two books (and we don't know which he wrote first).  But if we accept his statement that Phlegon didn't write about it taking place at the full moon, this would impeach the reliability of Syncellus/Africanus (#1) as well as that of Apollinaris (#4), both of whom assert that Phlegon did say it happened at the full moon.

If only we had somebody who had preserved the actual quote... oh wait, it seems we just might:

3. St. Jerome's Latin translation of St. Eusebius' Chronicle (c. 380), which appears to include a direct quote from Phlegon, says that:

Jesus Christ, according to the prophecies which had been foretold about him beforehand, came to his passion in the eighteenth year of Tiberius, at which time also we find these things written verbatim in other commentaries of the gentiles, that an eclipse of the sun happened, Bithynia was shaken by earthquake, and in the city of Nicaea many buildings collapsed, all of which agree with what occurred in the passion of the savior. Indeed Phlegon, who is an excellent calculator of Olympiads, also writes about these things, writing thus in his thirteenth book:

In the fourth year, however, of Olympiad 202 [32-33 AD]  an eclipse of the sun happened, greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it; at the sixth hour, day turned into dark night, so that the stars were seen in the sky, and an earthquake in Bithynia toppled many buildings of the city of Nicaea.

These things [are according to] the aforementioned man.

a) The Phlegon quote seems to show no familiarity with the Gospels, instead adding detail from Bithynia (now in Turkey).  Nicea is 670 miles away from Jerusalem, but it is only 22 minutes west as the sun travels, making the change in time zone unimportant.

b) Note that the Olympics took place in the summer, and Passover was in the Spring, so 32-33 matches one of the two possible years for Jesus' death.  So if Phlegon's date is correct, the event described cannot in any case have been a normal solar eclipse.

c) This version does not say anything about the full moon or the ninth hour, but it does say that the Darkness began at noon, and that the eclipse was notable, being greater and darker than any other on record, and that there was also an earthquake, albeit one whose epicenter was hundreds of miles away.  (I suppose this could just mean an unrelated earthquake taking place in the same year, but their placement in the same sentence suggests that the events were related.)  A major earthquake can be felt hundreds of miles away, the exact distance depending on the area.

d) By pluralizing "commentaries of the gentiles", St. Eusebius indicates that he has access to other sources besides Phlegon (perhaps Thallus?).

e) Eusebius' Chronicles were also translated into Armenian, but I was unable to find an English translation of the relevant portion online.

4. (St?) Apollinaris of Laodicea (c. 315-c. 390), commenting on Matthew in a work preserved only in fragments [missed by], as quoted in this book, says that:

Now a certain Phlegon, a philosopher among the Greeks, recollects this darkness as an incredible occurrence in the fourteenth [night] of the moon, when an eclipse should not have appeared . . . for eclipses occur at the time when the two stars [the sun and the moon] draw near to one another.   An eclipse of the sun happens at the conjunction of the sun and the moon as it runs into its way.  This is not the time of the full moon, when the sun is diametrically opposite to the moon.  But the eclipse occurred as creation mourned over what had happened, signifying that the drunken behavior of the Jews was linked to a darkened mind.

5. St. John Philoponus (490 – 570), notable for his physics work contributing towards a theory of inertia, wrote a commentary on Aristotle's view that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones, saying:

But this view is completely erroneous, and our view may be completely corroborated by actual observation more effectively than by any sort of verbal argument. For if you let fall from the same height two weights, one many times heavier than the other you will see that the ratio of the times required for the motion does not depend on the weights, but that the difference in time is very small.

Ahem!  What I actually meant to tell you, is that in a different book "On the Creation of the World", he wrote:

And of this darkness... Phlegon also made mention in the [book of] Olympiads.  For he says that in the fourth year of Olympiad 202 an eclipse of the sun happened, of a greatness never formerly known, and at the sixth hour of the day it was night, so that even the stars in heaven appeared.  And it is clear that it was the eclipse of the sun that happened while Christ the master was on the cross that Phlegon mentioned, and not another, first from his saying that such an eclipse was not known in former times, ...and also [because] it is shown from the history itself concerning Tiberius Caesar.  For Phlegon says that he became king in the second year of Olympiad 19{8}, but the eclipse happened in the fourth year of Olympiad 202.

Now for some later (perhaps less reliable) sources:

6.  St. Agapius of Hierapolis (10th century), an Arabic Christian, writes (texcavation took the translation from this book):

We have found in many books of the philosophers that they refer to the day of crucifixion of Christ, and that they marvel thereat.  The first of them is the philosopher Inflātūn, who says in the thirteenth chapter of the book he has written on the kings: In the reign of Caesar, the sun was darkened and there was night in [for?] nine hours; and the stars appeared.  And there was a great and violent earthquake in Nicea and in all the towns that surround it.  And strange things happened.

a) Inflātūn is apparently the standard Arabic for "Plato", presumably a mistaken rendering of Plegon's name.

b) If the Darkness lasted nine hours, that would be a discrepancy with the other accounts (and the Gospels).  Could this be a misinterpretation of something like "until the ninth hour"?

7.  St. Michael the Syrian (12th century) tells us that

Phlegon, a secular philosopher, has written thus: The sun grew dark, and the earth trembled; the dead resurrected and entered into Jerusalem and cursed the Jews.  In the work which he wrote concerning the time of the Olympiads, he said in the thirteenth book: In the fourth year of the third [?] Olympiad, there was a darkness at the sixth hour of the day, a Friday, and the stars appeared.  Nicea and the entire region of Bithynia were shaken, and many other places were overturned.

a) The "third" Olympiad must be an error, since that would be 764-763 BC.

b) St. Michael mentions that it occurred on a Friday (the day of the week when Jesus was crucified), which if taken from Phlegon's account would be an additional compatibility with the Gospels.

c) His account also mentions the dead coming out of their tombs in Jerusalem.  But if this was really in Phlegon, it is highly surprising that none of the other authors mention this confirmation of St. Matthew's Gospel!  (Africanus mentions it, but it seems to be his own The bit where they proceed to curse the Jews also seems over the top, and my guess is that this indicates a certain amount of distortion from the original text, indicating the presence of some telephone-game type additions.  But some of the other details are similar to the other texts.

d) Apparently this work is also notable for describing two other Darknesses, which occurred in 536 and 626 AD.  These were qualitatively different phenomena (partial obscurement of the sun lasting for months) and seem to have been correlated with volcanic eruptions occurring in those years.

II.E. The Roman annals

For completeness, I should also mention an additional possible reference to the Darkness, as related by St. Tertullian (160-220), in his Apology addressed to the "rulers of the Roman Empire", also writes of the Darkness at Christ's Crucifixion:

And yet, nailed upon the cross, He exhibited many notable signs, by which His death was distinguished from all others. At His own free-will, He with a word dismissed from Him His spirit, anticipating the executioner’s work. In the same hour, too, the light of day was withdrawn, when the sun at the very time was in his meridian blaze. Those who were not aware that this had been predicted about Christ, no doubt thought it an eclipse. You yourselves have the account of the world-portent still in your archives.

Tertullian writes with confidence, apparently believing that those he writes to would be able to look it up for themselves.  (This appeal is similar to that of St. Justin Martyr, who claims that the miracles of Christ were documented in the "Acts of Pontius Pilate", although Justin makes no reference to the Darkness.)  Unsurprisingly, these Roman records have no longer been preserved.

By the 4th century, various fake accounts from Pontius Pilate began to circulate to meet the needs of Christian (and anti-Christian) apologetics.  These are all obvious forgeries; they show obvious dependence on the Gospels and read more like biblical fan-fiction than what a neutral observer might be expected to write.  However, none of the currently extant Acts of Pontius Pilate seems to be the document Tertullian was referring to.

Thus there is a possibility that legitimate government records of these events were still in existence at the time Tertullian wrote.  However, there are other claims Tertullian makes, about the report Pilate sent to Tiberius Caesar and its reception in Rome, which are sufficiently implausible to cast some doubt on the accuracy of Tertullian's sources.)

III. Carrier essay

There is a widely circulated essay on the Darkness by the atheist activist Richard Carrier, which you can find here.

(As an aside, I have difficulty respecting the historical judgement of anyone capable of doubting the historical existence of Jesus—I don't mean his miracles and divinity and so on, I mean the existence of a man named Jesus who started the Christian movement.  Even skeptical New Testament scholars like Bart Ehrman think this "Jesus myth" idea is totally bonkers.  Note that, consulting Wikipedia's List of Historians again, of the near-contemporary historians, with completely extant works covering the right place and time (Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, the 4 Gospels, and Acts), all but one of them mentions Jesus!

Even if you think that the references to Jesus by the historians Josephus and Tacitus were interpolations by Christians, here's a little hint: if there were no Jesus, where did all of those Christians followers making these interpolations come from???  Did a bunch of Jews and Greeks start a club to eat bread together for no reason, and then just woke up one day and spontaneously say, let's invent a Founder?  And, just to offend everyone and get made fun of, let's say that he was crucified by the Romans on behest of the Jews!)

Carrier makes several good points, which I have incorporated into my analysis above, about the dating of Thallus and the relevance of St. Origen's comments.

However, he combines this with some dubious textual reconstructions of the texts above.  For example, after condemning another scholar's substitution of THALLOS for ALLOS as being too speculative, he makes the same substitution himself elsewhere (but in the opposite direction) to get the result he wants!

In another place, he writes that:

This quotation [of Eusebius, #3 above] shows that Phlegon did not mention Jesus in this context at all (he may still have mentioned him in some other obscure context, if we believe Origen). Rather, Phlegon merely recorded a great earthquake in Bithynia, which is on the coast of the Black Sea, more than 500 miles away from Jerusalem--so there is no way this quake would have been felt near the crucifixion--and a magnificent noontime eclipse, whose location is not clear. If the eclipse was also in Bithynia, as the Phlegon quote implies but does not entail, it also could not have been seen in Jerusalem, any more than partially, since the track of a total eclipse spans only 100 miles and runs from west to east (Jerusalem is due south).

In fact, the only coincidence with the gospel story is the year (although some modern scholars calculate the eclipse in question to have actually occurred in 29 AD) and time: it began at the sixth hour. Prigent suspects this last detail is a corruption by another scribe drawing from the gospel stories, although a noon eclipse is particularly startling and might get special mention (although the total eclipse would only occur at noon in one location--are we to suppose it was in Nicaea?). What is most important, however, is that Phlegon says nothing about the eclipse occuring during a full moon or lasting three hours (both physical impossibilities), yet these details are attributed to him in the lines added to Africanus. Clearly the quote has been altered over time.

In addition to what appears to be an error about how far earthquakes can be felt (as discussed above), these paragraphs suffer from an acute case of "methodological naturalism", a presupposition that all historical texts should be interpreted without making reference to anything supernatural.  Carrier assumes throughout that the eclipse recorded by Phlegon was an ordinary one, despite the fact that Phlegon presented it as a highly unusual event, more notable than any other recorded eclipse.  If we want to know whether a miracle in the Gospels was noticed by other people, it is counterproductive simply to point out that the event could not have happened naturally.  That would be making the Christians' own case for us, that God was at work.

And the fact that the Phlegon quote doesn't mention Jesus at all makes it stronger evidence of the Gospel record, not weaker!  That's because it makes it more likely that Phlegon was relying on independent reports, rather than simply repeating the claims of early Christians.  However well this fits in with Carrier's later project of trying to delete Jesus from the records of history, I think he's missed the point here.

Furthermore, there was no eclipse in the year mentioned by Phlegon.  Carrier mentions the possibility of redating the Phlegon event to AD 29 (which would be the first year of the 202nd Olympiad) in a parenthesis as a belief of "some modern scholars", so hypothesizing that the date needs correction is hardly a side issue; it is critical for his interpretation to work.

IV. Conclusion

I've tried to provide all of the relevant data, both the good and the bad, so that readers can decide for themselves what they think.  But my own personal conclusion is that this adds up to a weak argument in favor of the accuracy of the Gospels.

There is a significant amount of testimony for non-Christian sources (Thallus, Phlegon, and possibly the Roman archives) mentioning the Crucifixion Darkness, but it is all filtered through Christian writings.  Quite a few authors note Phlegon's report; not all of their descriptions are plausible or consistent with each other, but the main details tend to agree.

The coincidence with the Gospel Darkness and Earthquake, down to a specification of the year, and starting hour, is impressive, especially in light of the fact that no ordinary solar eclipse can fit the description.  From a Bayesian point of view, this would provide at least 2-3 orders of magnitude worth of evidence for the accuracy of the Gospels, if only we could be sure that Phlegon's account were truly independent of Christianity and yet got these details the same.  But we simply can't know this for sure, given that the original manuscript was lost and what we have was filtered through Christian sources.   This makes the evidence a lot weaker than it otherwise would be.

Still, it provides a nice corroboration of the Gospels at a point where many readers are particularly likely to be skeptical, when they report that the sun refused to shine upon our Savior as he suffered for our sins.  At the very least, it defeats the argument that the Darkness counts as evidence against Christianity, due to nobody else having noticed this public and obvious spectacle.

Posted in History, Theological Method | 20 Comments

Seeking Church Unity

In the comments section of this post, I've been having a debate with a Roman Catholic about this whole Protestantism thing, so perhaps now is a good time to write a post about the unity of the Church.

I. My Own Testimony

I suppose I may as well start by discussing my personal history.  I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene (a Wesleyan denomination) but at various stages of my life I have regularly attended services with the Free Methodists (7 years), Baptists (3 years) and Lutherans (1 year), not counting smaller visits.  I also like stepping into Anglican services, and even Catholic Masses (though out of respect for their rules I do not take communion with the Catholics).

While it's true I'm the sort of Protestant who reads the Catholic Encyclopedia for fun, my adventures in ecumenism (interactions between different branches of Christianity) really started in earnest at St. John's College.  During my last semester there I attended Holy Trinity, a wonderful Antiochian Orthodox congregation in Santa Fe.  When I had first been invited to visit the church my freshman year, it seemed like a bizarre eastern cult that just happened to also be about Jesus, but over time I came to realize the commonalities and differences more clearly.  It had a profound effect on my spiritual and musical sensibilities.  Also, the priest (St. John Bethancourt) is the most visibly holy person I have ever met on this earth.  He cannot enter a room without caring about whatever person he meets within. I am eternally grateful for the treasures obtained during this time, yet after careful consideration of the differences in theology, I remain a Protestant.

As a graduate student I attended Layhill Community Church, where during the time for prayer any person could go up to the altar railing to pray with St. Wil, the associate pastor.  He was a man of great faith and I noticed that eerie coincidences would sometimes occur after I prayed with him for things.  (This is the kind of thing skeptics attribute to confirmation bias, but Christians attribute to Divine Providence.)

For instance, one Sunday I asked to be able to worship God better, and the following Tuesday, while opening a bottle of olive oil to cook with, I suddenly remembered all the passages in Scripture about anointing with oil and the Holy Spirit, and was full of joy and praise.  Only afterwards did I remember what I had asked for.   (Despite the potent significance of olive oil as an ingredient in several of the Catholic sacraments, the next example will be even more relevant for church unity.)

Another time I was praying at the altar with St. Wil for the unity of the church, and in the following week (or two at the most) my housemate St. Ray invited me to attend a new bible study for grad students at the Catholic Student Center just off the U Maryland campus!  So of course I went, and actually attended for 4 years which was longer than he did.  Each year the study was led by a different monk from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC (except one year we got a seminarian instead).

After Ray invited me, he suddenly got worried it would be disruptive if I started arguing with everyone about Protestantism, so I agreed to keep it cool.  The first meeting I was silent about that, but vocal about everything else.  The second meeting I confessed; they were rather surprised because they had thought I had been speaking in a particularly Catholic way about the allegorical meaning of Adam and Eve during the first meeting.  I was even invited (along with the others) to sometimes lead class discussions, which I tried to do with a minimum of controversy, focusing on commonalities except when absolutely necessary.

I got to see a lot of their struggles with various aspects of Catholicism, and sometimes tried to formulate ways of looking at the problems which combines the strengths of both types of theology, e.g. "Sacraments are not a way that we manipulate God, they are a way that God manipulates us!"  They were aware that I disagreed about certain important things, but even though we weren't in communion, there was still community and communication!  It was excellent practice for charitable discussion, and I am deeply grateful that they were Catholic enough (the word Catholic means "universal", after all) to include me.

As I said, I tried to avoid excessive controversy in the group, but after hours I had some vibrant discussions with the Dominican brothers about Catholicism, and when I visited the House of Studies I got to have a friendly intellectual brawl, of the sort that causes so much consternation among people who don't like arguments, since they associate them with hostility.  They gave me books by St. Cardinal Newman, whose epistemology ("theory of knowledge") I find a bit whacko, for the reasons mentioned in that recent comments section, the one in which I flagrantly violated Socrates' rule for good conversations.  To keep things shorter, St. Bayes or bust!

II. An Index of Communion

As is well known, Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church, on the night of his betrayal:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.  Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  (John 17:20-23)

for the unity of our love is one of the signs by which the world can see that our faith is real, thus fulfilling his command to us:

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

But unity is not easy.  Although in a sense we Christians are already one due to being part of the body of Christ and "members of each other" (Romans 12:5), and in this way we are part of the One Holy Universal and Apostolic Church and the communion of the saints, practically speaking the expression of that unity may be impaired.  Just as quarreling siblings may be one family genetically but not be united in affection, or quarrelling spouses may be one in flesh but divided in spirit.

So the expression of unity is something that requires us to all work together to exercise maturity of character, using the gifts which God has provided us.  As St. Paul says:

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.” (Psalm 68:18)

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?   He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.   From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.  (Eph. 4:1-16)

So, how are we doing on this front?

Well, the bad news is that the Church has splintered into numerous different denominations, not all of which regard each other as being really Christian.  And a few of them aren't really Christian, though most accept the basic truths of the faith as expressed in e.g. the Nicene Creed.  But as St. Lewis pointed out a while back, the commonalities are far more profound than the differences.

Let's try to be honest about how bad this problem really is.  The most common figure one hears (from atheists complaining about the fractiousness of Christians, Catholics complaining about the fractiousness of Protestants, or Protestants complaining about the fractiousness of everyone), is to simply count the number of denominations, getting some huge figure in the tens of thousands, but this is an absolutely terrible way to assess the state of Church unity!

First of all, a lot of these organizational splits were for historical reasons (based on how different groups got evangelized, or because of doctrinal differences or attitude towards slavery or something like that which is no longer a live issue) or were for administrative convenience (e.g. to deal with being in different countries, or because the churches have somewhat different organizational structures which would be difficult to combine), and are perfectly compatible with both groups thinking the other is really Christian and cooperating for the sake of God's kingdom.

It would be better to ask "What is the probability that two randomly selected devout Christians are in communion with each other?"  This gives a numerical measure, a "communion index", describing the degree of church unity.  The answer turns out to be about 1/3 (see below).  Could be better, could be a lot worse.

Merely having administratively independent units is not the same thing as being divided in love, or in communion.  Even the Catholics have 24 nearly-independent administrative units (which appoint their own leaders and have their own customs and rules, but remain in communion with the Pope and accept his doctrinal decrees), while the Eastern Orthodox have about 15 "autocephalous" (self-governing) churches.  These churches were in communion with each other until about 1054 when both sides started excommunicating each other over an arcane theological dispute.  These excommunications were lifted in 1965, but the churches are still not in communion for other reasons.

There are also 6 independent Oriental Orthodox churches, a group of churches including e.g. the Copts who did not accept the decision of the Council of Chalcedon.  Although I personally think Chalcedon provided the best language for understanding the Incarnation, in retrospect the "Monophysite" or "Miaphysite" group was probably just using different words to refer to the same thing, and were not really heretics in the same way that the Gnostics or Arians were.  Thus it was wrong to excommunicate them; and this is not only my own opinion but also the opinion of the leaders on both sides:

Hence we wish to reaffirm solemnly our profession of common faith in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, as Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Jacoub III did in 1971: They denied that there was any difference in the faith they confessed in the mystery of the Word of God made flesh and become truly man. In our turn we confess that He became incarnate for us, taking to himself a real body with a rational soul. He shared our humanity in all things except sin. We confess that our Lord and our God, our Saviour and the King of all, Jesus Christ, is perfect God as to His divinity and perfect man as to His humanity. In Him His divinity is united to His humanity. This Union is real, perfect, without blending or mingling, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without the least separation. He who is God eternal and indivisible, became visible in the flesh and took the form of servant. In him are united, in a real, perfect indivisible and inseparable way, divinity and humanity, and in him all their properties are present and active.

The subtext here is the thing which only really mature people are capable of saying, namely: "Oops, I'm sorry, we were wrong." (However, since this original schism, the Catholic church has developed their theology further, so the churches are unfortunately still not in communion.)

Protestants have a lot more sects, but then again most Protestants regard most other Protestant groups as being really Christians, and therefore part of the Universal Church founded by Jesus.  Nowadays the biggest disputes tend to be about the axis that runs from liberal/modernist to fundamentalist/literalist axis, not denominational loyalties.  (I'm somewhere in the middle, since I think miracles have really happened and the Scriptures' teachings on e.g. sexual ethics and so on need to be taken seriously, but I also accept the findings of biology and physics and don't think rigid definitions of inerrancy are the right way to talk about the authority of the Scriptures.)

With a few exceptions, most Protestant denominations allow all those who confess Jesus as their Savior and Lord to take communion in their church.  So does the Assyrian Church of the East, an ancient apostolic church which was at one time known as the Nestorian church because the heretic Nestorius was received there, but it is now generally regarded as unfair to tarnish the whole group by his opinions.  (The Assyrian church is much smaller than the others, although historically it was much more important and and even spread to China).

So for purposes of calculating the odds that two Christians will be in communion, Nicene Christianity is really divided into 4 large subgroups: 1) Catholics, 2) most Protestants, 3) Eastern Orthodox, and 4) Oriental (listed in decreasing order by number of adherents) plus some smaller groups.  Because the groups are not all the same size, the coefficient is closer to 1/3 than 1/4.

III. Three Kinds of Unity

Is the reconciliation of the major branches of Christianity even possible?  And what can we do to make a difference?

Catholics care the most about unity, and are willing to do the most in terms of practical accommodations.  Also, although they are a big institution which changes very slowly, they do change, and they know how to fall in line behind the decisions of the Pope.  The difficulty is that they think that their past official pronouncements are infallible, and that it is necessary to believe every one of them to be in communion with them.  So in doctrinal terms, it is impossible for them to ever compromise.  That sounds a lot like a deal breaker to me.  Of course, if the Catholics are right about everything, then the hundreds of Protestant denominations would just need to all recognize this fact simultaneously.  Right, that sounds plausible.

The Eastern Orthodox church is a lot closer in its theology to the Catholics, and it would be more feasible for them to hash out a compromise.  And I will wildly celebrate any such union should it occur.  But there's also a lot of bad blood between them as a result of various historical incidents (such as the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, which apparently some of the Orthodox remember this as if it were yesterday).  Plus the Catholics made political attempts to take over various of the Eastern patriarchies, which succeeded in creating a bunch of Eastern Rite Catholics, but alienated them further.  Twice the two churches got a bunch of leaders together and announced they were reconciled, but both times the Eastern Orthodox back home refused to accept the decision.

So there's been so much entrenchment of the various sides, with enough bad history between Catholics/Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox etc. that the groups reuniting with each other seems to be quite impossible.

And it is impossible.  Impossible for human beings, that is.  Not impossible for God:

 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

“‘If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  (Mark 9:23)

There's always the option of fasting and praying, and genuinely asking God to shine light into our hearts.  Surely God is willing to act when the time is right:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  (2 Chronicles 7:14)

So the first step is to realize that it is something that God will do, not something we can do.  All of the parties to this dispute believe that there is a God in heaven who can act, so why do we so frequently act as though a negative outcome were inevitable?

The second thing is to recognize how far we've come already.  For a couple centuries, Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in order to try to come out ahead politically.  Until everyone got sick of that and decided to have an Enlightenment with secular republics instead.  The killings don't happen anymore, leaving aside Northern Ireland anyway.

Even after that, until quite recently perhaps a century ago, many Catholics and Protestants seem to have believed that more or less everyone on the other side was going straight to Hell when they died.  This era too has passed.

And it wasn't my generation's doing, either.  It was the hard work of a few individuals in previous generations, who insisted on talking to each other and opening up honest communication, even when it seemed impossible.  Vatican II was a pretty big deal too, what with Catholics rethinking their attitude towards Protestants and accepting some Protestant ideas in the process (e.g. Mass in the language of the people).  Meanwhile, even if there are still some fundamentalists out there who think ecumenical dialogue is of the devil, for the most part Protestants also became more open to the idea that some Catholics have actual spirituality and relationships with Jesus, and that we can be allies in some ways.

 “Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true.  I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (John 4:37-38)

In fact the wounds of division have already begun to be healed.  The first step was unity of love.  This step came about when different Christian groups became genuinely interested in the well-being of Christians in the other groups (even before they convert to our side).

It is just barely possible to love a group of people and also think that they are lying scoundrels who will go straight to Hell, but we all know that love isn't what usually motivates this attitude.  It's not a coincidence that the word "charity" is used to mean both "Love in the Christian sense" and also "Not interpreting what other people say in the worst possible light".  When you care about people, you don't just want to see the negatives but also the positives.  As St. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper.  Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?  If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.  You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker.  If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black.  Finally we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

Compare to this attitude:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.   It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  (1 Cor 13:4-8)

There are always going to be silly, superficial reasons to condemn the other side.  (No matter how many good arguments there are for a position, there will always also be some terrible ones!)  But love does not look for reasons to condemn, but for reasons to rejoice.  If it criticizes, it does so not to boost its own ego, but out of genuine caring and out of respect for the good it sees is already present.  It is willing to investigate carefully before deciding that the other side are evil rebels.

The next stage is the unity of hope.  This step comes you not only care for the people on the other side, but you actually believe that the situation isn't hopeless, that if you form friendships and have dialogues and do good for each other, that it may actually make a difference.  This is the stage we are currently working at, in my opinion, although obviously there can never be enough love to fuel the process.

With hope, we actually begin to desire to be in communion with each other, because we have begun to think it might one day be possible.  And even now, we can want this together (making due allowances for the fact that what complete unity would look like, is itself one of the theological controversies in question), and we can pray for it together.

“Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:19-20).

I'm thinking this means, two or three Christians who have to work a bit to understand each other and agree about something!  (Not 2 or 3 self-satisfied Christians who are already primed to think in exactly the same way, and who don't care what anyone outside their group thinks.)  Real unity requires effort, but the reward is that it produces real community:

How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in harmony!

It is like fine oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down Aaron’s beard
onto his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon
falling on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord has appointed the blessing—
life forevermore.  (Psalm 133)

Of course not all of us are called to ecumenical work trying to understand other types of Christians—some of us are to focus on serving individual congregations (which can already present enough challenges for reconciliation!), or to provide aid to non-Christians, or to evangelize, or to serve the body of Christ in some other way.  We all belong to each other, and according to the law of our King, the son of David:

The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle.  All will share alike.  (1 Sam 30:24)

And the final stage will be the unity of faith, when the love that is between us is enough that God can work through it so that we fully recognize and repent of the divisions that are between us.  I don't know exactly what a practical version of this would look like (and as I said, this is one of the very things which is disputed), but I can still work towards it.  Jesus prayed for it; it is possible.  Let's have it happen in this world rather than wait for the next one.

Speaking as a Protestant I would emphasize that this unity of faith does not necessarily require us to agree on the exact same list of doctrines.  When St. Paul writes:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

it is clear that for him, "one mind" does not actually mean "agrees about everything", for the theme of the entire previous chapter and a half up to this point (Romans 14:1-15:7) is about dealing with the situation in which two Christians disagree about disputable matters.

A doctrine can be true, or even important, without being an essential dogma which must be believed to be a real Christian.  (Even Catholics don't think this, but they do have a procedure for moving more and more things into the "dogma" category... thus making reunion harder and harder as time passes.)

There's a terrible idea called "secondary separation" in a few Protestant circles, which is that you should not only separate yourself from Christians who disbelieve in the doctrines you think are essential, you should also separate from Christians who fail to separate from such people... and so on ad nauseum.  Clearly, in the absence of a Pope, that can only end with a tiny schismatic group of self-righteous Pharisees.  Which is why we shouldn't think that way!

Instead, we need to accept one another.  This doesn't mean we shouldn't have any standards for what we mean when we call somebody else a Christian, since both Jesus (Matt 18:15-20) and St. Paul (1 Cor 5) taught that in extreme circumstances, the church can and should excommunicate people.  But it does mean that our standards for other people need to be less strict than our standards for ourselves.  To summarize in a picture:

Note what happens here if we allow the little circles to expand until they become as large as the big circles.  In that case, we will come out of communion, by refusing to accept somebody else unless they are exactly like us.  This is schism, in which a failure of love leads to a rupture in the bonds of faith.

Although I wrote "believe" in this picture, the same thing applies when we talk about which behaviors are acceptable in a Christian community.  Here it is even easier, since we have more control over our behaviors than over our beliefs.  To have a functioning community, we need to be strict with ourselves, but more accepting when it comes to the conduct of others.

People are always alert to hypocrisy, situations where somebody says that X is required but doesn't do X themselves.  You might think of this as a situation where the "small" circle is actually bigger than the "big" circle, and the person is condemned by their own standards.  But merely avoiding hypocrisy is not nearly enough.  If two people each allow themselves to do everything they personally think is OK, then unless they have identical beliefs, one will step outside the bounds set by the other.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven.  Give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  (Luke 6:37-38)

IV. How to get other Christians to accept you

It's fun to argue, and it may cause some individuals to move from one viewpoint to another, but I don't think it's where the most important work lies.  If you want to contribute to church unity, the way to do it is to serve.  The way to get other groups of Christians to recognize what you believe in, is not to fight them but to make yourself indispensable to them.

Think about St. Lewis' writings.  He led millions to Christ, and to a deeper spirituality.  He chose to write primarily about those things which Christians have in common.  And the funny thing is, Christians of pretty much every kind all have him as their hero.  For example, the Eastern Orthodox have a tendency to think that Orthodoxy is the One True Church, and many of them think that those outside of it aren't real Christians.  And yet an enormous number of them admire and respect St. Lewis, an Anglican.  Doesn't matter if it's inconsistent with their general views about the non-Orthodox, they're forced to recognize him as a Christian, because he is just too darn useful to their spiritual lives to anathematize.

“When Christ ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”

The communion of saints operates through the gifts we give to each other.  It has not been held back by denominational barriers.  I have heard hymns written by Protestants sung in Catholic Masses; I have seen books written by Catholic saints provide guidance for Protestants.  We are already one family, we just need to realize it.

So go and serve other groups of Christians.  Find out what they need, and then give it to them.  Make it so they can't help but see that the Spirit of God is moving you.  (We are all quite willing to believe that the people who help our team are inspired from above.)  At the very least, we are always able to pray for each other.  Make the Lord's priorities your priorities:

When Jesus had washed their feet and put on His robe, He reclined again and said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you?  You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you.  I assure you: A slave is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17)

Posted in Politics, Theology | 17 Comments

Inspiration and the Scriptures

A reader St. Willie asks a question regarding the transcript of my recent sermon.

I have read the text of the sermon of which, I guess, you prepared and delivered.
Do you think that your sermon was prepared under the inspiration of God?
I do think so.
What, if you disagree, is the difference between inspiration of your sermon and Scripture?

I'm glad the sermon packed a spiritual punch for you.  I was just trying to share the Gospel  in a way that is more faithful to the key ideas in Scripture.  But before I wrote it, I hoped and prayed that the Spirit would lead me to effectively present his word and his will to my audience.  And at times (as in this exchange) I have felt that I was writing God's truth better than I could have without God's help.  So does that make it inspired?

"Inspired" is a word that means guided or breathed-through by the Holy Spirit.  An inspired text or speech is one in which God is speaking, not just a human being.  Not that it ceases to be a human product; it still comes from the personality of the human author, which is being used as an instrument for communicating his message.

Now, obviously, there is a sense in which God does everything all the time, and that the wicked and the righteous alike are his instruments.  Yes, but this does not mean that the words we say to our neighbor are always graced by his presence, that they are the words which he would say.

Inspiration [in-spirit-ation] does not imply that the words are simply dictated to the human author.  (Although dictation can happen.  Some biblical texts, such as parts of the Old Testament prophets, seem to have been dictated with the direct voice of God, but other parts are clearly in the writer's own voice, and this does not make one text more "inspired" than the other.  Similarly, inspiration may be consciously known by the author, or it may be unconscious.)  God is speaking through an instrument, but that instrument is not a mere pen but rather a whole human life and personality as gathered into a particular moment of communication.  This makes sense because the true Word of God is Jesus, God come in the flesh, and so true prophecy will testify to him: "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10).

Now, Christians are to be like Jesus in that we are filled with the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity; the difference being of course that he was filled "without measure" whereas we Christians each have our own "spiritual gifts" or charisms which we exercise as part of the body of Christ:

Now concerning what comes from the Spirit: brothers, I do not want you to be unaware.  You know that when you were pagans, you used to be led off to the idols that could not speak. Therefore I am informing you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit.   There are different ministries, but the same Lord.  And there are different activities, but the same God activates each gift in each person.  A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial:

to one is given a message of wisdom through the Spirit,
to another, a message of knowledge by the same Spirit,
 to another, faith by the same Spirit,
to another, gifts of healing by the one Spirit,
 to another, the performing of miracles,
to another, prophecy,
to another, distinguishing between spirits,
to another, different kinds of languages,
to another, interpretation of languages.

But one and the same Spirit is active in all these, distributing to each person as He wills. (1 Cor 12:1-11)

This is a major difference between the Old and New Covenants: in the Old only some very special people like prophets and kings were filled with the Spirit, but in the New the Spirit of God is poured out on the entire people of God.  Today is the feast of Pentecost where we celebrate this very fact.

Thus each individual Christian has the Holy Spirit inside of them, and is, to a greater or lesser extent, inspired by the Holy Spirit in their words and actions.  (When I say individual, of course I don't mean individual as opposed to the community of believers, for the Spirit of Jesus is present in a new way when two or three are gathered in his name.  But it would be quite heretical to say that the Spirit is only in the Church as an institution, and not in the particular individuals which compose it!)

OK, but this raises a potential objection: how does this compare to the Inspiration of the Scriptures?  Because the language we use to describe that is very similar:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  (2 Tim 3:16-17)

We see here that all parts of Scripture is (a) inspired by God, and (b) useful for the Christian life.  For this reason it is backed by the authority of God, and is (one of the) instruments which he uses to perfect us into the image of Christ, who is the ultimate Word of God.

(Note that this passage does not say anything about inerrancy, which I do not think is the most useful word to apply to the Scriptures.  I believe that all Scripture communicates some truth God wished them to say, and of course these truths are reliable and accurate when we have understood them properly, but I do not think it follows that the Bible is free from e.g. contradictions concerning historical trivia, or that passages like Genesis 1-11 must be taken to teach scientific truth.  Conversely, if I write 2+2 = 4 on a napkin, that napkin is inerrant, since it contains no falsehoods, but that does not make it inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Also, the word "inerrancy" isn't very useful for describing passages which don't contain factual statements, e.g. commandments or complaints or questions and so on.  I would rather stick closer to the language that Scripture uses about itself.)

Now pretty much all Christians believe that the canon of Scripture is closed, meaning that no new books are to be added.  In addition to the Old Testament books (about which there is disagreement among Christians concerning the exact scope of the canon), there are 27 New Testament books written by the apostles and their close companions, and nobody seems to expect any more to be added.  Except for some nutty groups like Mormons whose theology is way out of the mainstream.

Some Protestants (called cessationists), usually from Reformed traditions, believe that the overtly supernatural gifts of the Spirit (such as miracles, prophecy, and speaking in tongues) were only for the first generation of Christians and ceased with the death of the apostles.  But I cannot find anything in the text of the New Testament which suggests or implies that prophecy will cease.  Quite the contrary, the New Testament seems to treat prophecy as a normal part of the Christian communal life.  Now of course the NT was written during the time of the NT, but it was written to provide guidance for all believers through the centuries.  To postulate what would amount to a new dispensation (i.e. a period of time in which God interacts with people in a different way) but with absolutely no Scripture written to guide us during that new time period, seems absurd.

The main proof-text on the other side is 1 Cor 13, where St. Paul talks about the end of prophecy:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  (1 Cor 13:8-11)

But this is obviously referring to the Second Coming, not to the closure of Scripture, for St. Paul goes on to say that

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.  (1 Cor 13:12)

However valuable it might be that we have all books of the Bible instead of some books of the Bible (back when the Apostles were still alive), it is clear that it does not amount to the radical change of seeing God face to face, "for nobody can see God's face and live".  So that moment when we all see him directly is yet to come.  Since that's the best proof-text they have, I think it's fair to say that there's no good evidence in Scripture for the position.

(There are also some passages about prophecy ending in the Old Testament, but these presumably allude to the end of the period of Old Testament prophecy.  Also they do not generally seem to treat the end of prophecy as though it were a good thing.)

Experience suggests that, although prophecy is indeed rarer in later generations than during the time of the Apostles (being less necessary), it has never entirely ceased.  Indeed, as a result of the Pentecostal movement in the 20th century, those claiming to exercise this gift are more common now than ever.  And I myself have (very rarely!) been given a specific message by God for a church or another person.  That is prophecy, by definition.

What's really going on here, is that cessationists are privileging a theory about Scripture (that because it is closed, no future prophecy can occur) over the teaching found in Scripture (that the living God speaks to his people).  That's not a good way to do interpretation.

So if prophecy is still around, why don't we go around adding new Scriptures to the Bible?

Well, first, because most of what we do and say is merely partially inspired by the Holy Spirit, with an admixture of our own earthly opinions and wrongheaded ideas.  Whereas Scripture is totally inspired by God.  Even if e.g. some of St. Paul's crankishness or St. David's curses got into the final product, we still confess that even those parts are sanctified and hallowed by their role in God's plan.  They are intimately connected to the message conveyed by Scripture, so that they are still "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness".  Humility suggests that for most of us, our offering to the Church is not so thoroughly worked-over by the Spirit as what we know we experience when reading the Scriptures:

 Let the [false] prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the Lord.   “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jeremiah 23:28-29)

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  (Hebrews 4:12)

I see the Holy Spirit working powerfully in the writings of e.g. Sts. Lewis or Chesterton, but that does not mean that their every opinion should be enshrined as the very word of God; that would be terrible!  And I see that Plato anticipated many aspects of Christian truth, surely due to divine guidance, but that does not make his random opinions authoritative.  These writings are partially inspired, not completely inspired.

But this distinction is not sufficient as it stands.  Suppose God were to speak to me tomorrow in a voice clearly his, telling me to be a missionary to Zimbobia, or whatever.  If I wrote it down while adding nothing of my own, or adding things of my own only as appropriate while drunk on the love of God, it is clear that the end product would be totally inspired.

But it does not follow that we ought to print it in the back of our Bibles.  That is, I think, because there is a second criterion besides inspiration.   An act of communication is defined not only by its author but also by its intended recipient.  The books of the Bible are in the Bible because they are universal, that is given to the entire Church for purposes of being its foundational literature.  In short, they are not just complete in their inspiration, but also complete in their intended audience.  They are for everyone because they are our primary literature about the primary revelation of God, namely the preparation of Israel for Christ, his advent here on earth, and the resulting New Covenant, which is "the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all".

While other Christians might be incidentally benefited by the words calling me to Zimbobia, to require everyone to accept and read it would be more likely to lead to division rather than unity.  It is not a text which was read aloud in the churches, and which organically grew up alongside of God's people in order to constitute it's identity.

For this reason, we accept into Scripture only the writings of the Old Testament prophets (and the histories and writings which put them into context) and the New Testament Apostles who witnessed Jesus' Resurrection.  Any additional prophecy is to be tested by the words of the Bible, and rejected if it conflicts with it.

But as I said, there is no explicit promise of God in the New Testament that no new books of the Bible will be inspired.  Some think that the Apocalypse of St. John contains such a statement:

I testify to everyone who hears the prophetic words of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book.   And if anyone takes away from the words of this prophetic book, God will take away his share of the tree of life and the holy city, written in this book. (Rev 22:18-19)

However, at the time that Revelation was written it was a separate book in a separate scroll from the rest of the Bible.  It was centuries before the binding technology existed to put the entire Bible into a single codex.  So this passage probably refers to adding new material to the Book of Revelation, not the rest of the Bible.  It is also very similar to passages in the Old Testament:

Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.  (Deut 4:2)

Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.  Do not add to His words Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar. (Prov. 30:5-6)

but these were clearly not the final books of the Bible.  So while these words could potentially mean not to treat human traditions as being on par with divine revelation, they do not imply that there will be no new divine revelation.

However, it is very hard for me to believe that any new spiritual events could be sufficiently earthshaking to justify the publication of an additional portion of the Bible.  What could God possibly do that would be comparable in drama to the revelation already given?  (The Second Coming would be important enough, but presumably seeing Christ face-to-face will obviate the need for any written Scriptures.)

I can only think of one thing which is (a) promised in both Testaments of our current Scriptures, and (b) as important and universal as some events in the Old Testament and Acts (if not the Gospels).  And that is if the Jews converted as a group to Christianity.  As St. Paul says:

But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!   I am talking to you Gentiles.  Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry  in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.  For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?...

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in,  and in this way all Israel will be saved.
(Romans 11:12-15, 25-26)

So, if a prophet like Elijah or St. John the Baptist were to arise in modern day Israel, and if by his ministry the Jews as a group believed in Jesus and were saved, then I speculate that the writings (or youtube videos?) of that prophet might well be worthy of inclusion among our Scriptures, being clearly endorsed by God.  But that is for those who live at that time to worry about!  If indeed the world lasts long enough afterwards for it to matter...

Posted in Theology | 2 Comments

Why are Internet discussions less polite?

In the comments section of another post, St. Martel observes that:

Discussion fora on the Internet do have a tendency to make people a little less polite than they would be in person.  Not sure why that is...

[May I point out how glad I am that my readers are capable of noticing this and correcting for tone on their own?  Yes, I may?  Okay, I will then.]

I think there are 3 main reasons why internet discussions are less polite:

1) Anonymity.  People feel free to say things they wouldn't otherwise say when it can't be traced back to their "real" identity, so that there are no consequences (for those with limited capacity to feel guilt, anyway).

While this probably accounts for many of the worst abusers, I don't think it's all that relevant in the case of a) people like myself who blog under our real names, or b) people with robust consciences who don't like trolling and insulting people so much.

2) Lack of bodily interaction.  We human beings consist of both bodies and souls.  When we have conversations face-to-face, we aren't just communicating with words.  Our social instincts, evolved over millions of years, involve all kinds of subtle communications when we talk in person.  Even merely talking over the phone (by voice) provides subtle clues which are not present in internet conversations.  Whereas, on the internet we have a conversation between disembodied minds.  Don't get me wrong, it's a wonderful technology, but it's missing a lot of color, the sense of the other person as a person, the embodied almost-sacramental aspects of human relationships.

Hence the email convention of including a smiley to say when we are joking. :-)  (That wasn't a joke, that was just an example of a smiley.)  Although, that doesn't always work either.  As my father St. Larry once said:

You know how people are sometimes rude on Usenet or on a mailing list. Sometimes they'll write something that can only be taken as a deadly insult, and then they have the unmitigated gall to put a smiley face on it, as if that makes it all right.

This helps explain why you should avoid quarrelling with somebody by email.  It seldom brings disputing parties into agreement.  Emotionally tense situations are best resolved in more personable settings, if you can handle it.  (Though sometimes email or a physical letter can be useful to broach a sensitive topic if you're too chicken to initiate the exchange in person.  But that's different from quarrelling.)

So on the one hand, arguing with somebody face-to-face can trigger an unpleasant sense of  Conflict! Conflict! with an accompanying adrenaline surge.  It's annoying if your body starts trembling with fear when your mind just wanted to have a nice friendly conversation about how somebody else is wrong about politics or something.  On the other hand, we instinctively know this and most of us adapt in order to be more personable and friendly when there's an actual face on the other end.   It's much easier to see what's going on and correct it mid-stream.  This leads to a 3rd point:

3) Long comments with a delay in responding.  If I speak to you in person, then if I put my foot in it and begin to misunderstand you, or say something insulting, you will immediately respond and I have the ability to self-correct before anything goes too terribly wrong.

But if I'm in an argument on the Internet, that's not how things work.  Suppose you read a long response from somebody and you start obsessing about in what ways it is wrong and needs correction.  So then you write a long response of your own, but it's pretty easy to get carried away.  If the tone is wrong, it won't be corrected until several hours or days later when an equally strongly worded message comes back, and that of course will itself generally be a disproportionate response (for the same reason) which triggers a similar reaction.

Of course, the whole thing can be nipped in the bud if both parties make a conscious effort to be unusually polite and respectful, but it's surprising just how much greater an effort it takes.

But even if the discussion is totally polite, there's a downside for philosophy.  Long-winded comments make it too easy to talk at cross purposes, without correction from the other point of view.  After all, when I'm writing a long argument I'm putting myself into the brain state where I am right and the other person is wrong, and one stays there for quite some time.  This is dangerous to one's sense of balance and fairness.

Psychological studies have shown that when people hear evidence that their own strongly-held political views are wrong, the usual response is to argue against the new evidence.  Paradoxically, this causes them to become more certain of their previous point of view [too lazy to find a link right now, but I promise I'm not just making this up].

From this perspective, arguments are rather dangerous things!  Simply by expressing an argument for X, one naturally causes somebody on the other side to compensate by arguing for ~X.  But this puts them in the position of a lawyer trying to make the best case for one side, not a judge disinterestedly weighing the evidence for and against.  And as we all know, lawyers have a tendency to come to believe that their own side is right (even if it was basically a coin-toss which side they would be assigned to in the first place.)

This is something I worry about quite a bit as somebody who enjoys arguing about religion on my blog (and in person).  Rational people should settle disputes rationally, but what if providing rational arguments don't tend to actually cause this to happen?  What does one do instead?

One could compensate for this by asking people to argue for the other side of the debate for a change (one implementation of this is the Ideological Turing Test, adapted to religious arguments by St. Leah Libresco.)  But this only works if we presuppose a strong interest in finding the truth.  The "debate team" mentality where the goal is to win by coming up with sophistical bogus arguments, is not really improved by the fact that the positions are assigned randomly.  That just makes it even more relativistic.

To try to get around some of these issues, the Socratic method of dialogue requires that the participants ask each other questions instead of arguing directly, and respond by making short speeches, not long.  The other rule is that you can take things back as needed without any shame, instead of getting stuck defending one's initial reaction to the question.  As St. Socrates says to Polus in St. Plato's Gorgias:

SOCRATES: Illustrious Polus, the reason why we provide ourselves with friends and children is, that when we get old and stumble, a younger generation may be at hand to set us on our legs again in our words and in our actions: and now, if I and Gorgias are stumbling, here are you who should raise us up; and I for my part engage to retract any error into which you may think that I have fallen-upon one condition:

POLUS: What condition?

SOCRATES: That you contract, Polus, the prolixity of speech in which you indulged at first.

POLUS: What! do you mean that I may not use as many words as I please?

SOCRATES: Only to think, my friend, that having come on a visit to Athens, which is the most free-spoken state in Hellas, you when you got there, and you alone, should be deprived of the power of speech—that would be hard indeed. But then consider my case:—shall not I be very hardly used, if, when you are making a long oration, and refusing to answer what you are asked, I am compelled to stay and listen to you, and may not go away? I say rather, if you have a real interest in the argument, or, to repeat my former expression, have any desire to set it on its legs, take back any statement which you please; and in your turn ask and answer, like myself and Gorgias—refute and be refuted.

So I guess the really philosophical way to argue on the Internet is chat!  Text chats (IM) are still disembodied, but they have a much quicker turn-around time, perfect for Socratic dialogue.  I use gmail chat all the time to talk physics with my physics collaborators, but I don't usually have philosophical discussions that way.  But maybe I should.

Posted in Blog, Ethics, Politics | 20 Comments