31 December 2010

Who Says Christians and Muslims Can't Live Together?

I worship Allah and I am not a Muslim. I celebrate eid, and it is not a Muslim festival. I attended al-madrasa, but it was not a Muslim school. How might one explain what some perceive as contradictory terms? Allah, eid and madrasa are the Arabic words for God, festival and school, respectively. Therefore as an Arabic-speaking Christian these terms were part of my childhood vocabulary and so should have retained their apparent meanings. However, Allah, eid and madrasa have in recent times become associated with Islam and Muslims; they continue to be exploited and at times misused by the media.

Consequently, I have begun to feel alienated from the Arabic that was connected to my cultural upbringing. It is not unusual for a language to change and for its words to acquire different meanings over time. Nor am I the only person to feel alienated from her childhood linguistic and cultural associations. What is significant about the development of the above-mentioned terms is that their evolution seems to correlate with the decline of cross-cultural communication, religious tolerance and multi-faith communal co-habitation, ie people of different faiths living in the same community.

I grew up in a Lebanese farming village called Yarun, which was (and still is) inhabited by both Christians and Muslims. Yarun has a church and a mosque. Its patron saint is Saint George and, although I cannot tell you the name of its mosque, I can clarify that the Muslims in Yarun belong to the Shia sect. Furthermore, words such as burqa or hijab were unknown to me as a child – I only became acquainted with them in London. When Muslim Yaruni women went to al-hajj, they would wear scarves upon their return. As a child, I knew therefore that a hajji was a Muslim woman who covered her head because she had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. A Yaruni hajji was respected for what she believed and she did not show non-Muslims any hostility for not covering their heads. It was in London that I first encountered reproachful and contemptuous glances from the so-called pious Muslim women who seem to object to my uncovered and often unbound hair. Moreover, although hajj and hajji are the Arabic titles of masculine and feminine Muslim pilgrims, they are also used by Christians – some of the most devoted Christian couples in Yarun are affectionately known as hajj and hajji.

Yarun is a small village of no particular significance. It is situated on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Although Yarun dates from Phoenician times, that distant history must remain buried in its ancient rocks. In my living memory, Yarun was only mentioned once in the western media: when the village fell victim to the first systematic area bombardment by Israeli forces in July 2006. But the village's claim to fame, in my opinion, should not be Israeli bombardments: after all, these are not at all unique, since they occur on a regular basis (and often did when I lived there).

Yarun prides itself on the fact that Christians and Muslims still live side by side – even after 15 years of bloody fighting during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Remarkably, the Yaruni community remained steadfast during the war; no blood was shed between Muslims and Christians and the only victims of the war were either shot by Israelis or were killed outside the village. What might this suggest? It suggests that the basis of cohabitation has more to do with cultural heritage than religious beliefs or political convictions.

Under attack

Indeed, to return to the incident that placed Yarun on the "global media map" in 2006, the villagers (Christians and Muslims alike) fled Israeli missiles and took shelter in a nearby village called Rmaish. (Compared with Yarun, Rmaish is a town, but for our purpose it is a village.) Israel targeted Yarun because of the strong connection between some of its Muslim inhabitants and Hezbollah (God's party). The unlawfully armed group, based in south Lebanon, had kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, and this led to Israel's disproportionate and heavy-handed retaliation against the entire country. The Muslim Yarunis who were not connected to al-hizb followed their Christian neighbours and fled to Rmaish hoping that they would be safer among its all-Christian congregation.

As the Israeli bombardment continued, more people from the surrounding villages flocked to Rmaish for safety. Despite their own anxieties, the people of Rmaish accepted the fleeing refugees and shared with them what little resources they had. With no running rivers in the village, water was obviously the most precious commodity in the dry and hot Lebanese summer. Cut off from the rest of the country and with no outside aid for 21 days, Rmaishi resources were fast diminishing. But the people of Rmaish did not discriminate between Muslim and Christian refugees: they housed and fed them all, as much they were able to. Faced with a common enemy and in times of adversity, these communities pull together on bases that have little to do with religious beliefs or political affiliations.

I personally have fond memories of growing up in a mixed-faith community. My parents hired Muslims who worked the fields side by side with Christians of the village. Growing up, I never felt or was made to feel that I should behave differently towards the Muslims in my community. Muslim friends came to celebrate Christian festivals with us. For instance, each Yaruni Christian family has an appointed eid of the Roman Catholic calendar, such as eid al-milad (Christmas) and al-eid al-qiyama (Easter), which it celebrates annually.

My family's appointed day is eid al-ghitas, the day of the Epiphany. After the Epiphany mass, Muslims and Christians came to my parents' open house to celebrate with us and drink a toast to al-'id. I expect my parents returned the obligations to their Muslim friends when they celebrated their religious festivals, but I never accompanied them: I was much too young and far too boisterous for adult company. I do, however, recall a strong day-to-day sense of community life. For instance, Muslims could buy fresh produce from the Christian shops (or I should say the shop, we only had one on the Christian side) that opened on Fridays, except for Good Friday, while Christians would do likewise on Sundays in the Muslim quarter. Both sides shared the enormous communal cauldron, approximately 2.5m in diameter and over 1m deep. The copper-interior-and-iron-exterior cauldron was used to boil wheat which would supply Yaruni families with cracked wheat, a staple ingredient of the Lebanese diet. This massive shared property would make its rounds in both Muslim and Christian quarters until every family had managed to cook its wheat and stock it for the long and cold winter months.

Life was not always work, worship and obligations. There was, for instance, a social element attached to the cooking of the wheat. Considering that this task coincided with the end of the harvest and that cooking the contents of the gigantic cauldron lasted all night, we used to pass the time dancing, singing and telling stories under the stars. In the morning we would breakfast on the freshly-cooked wheat before taking the strained remainder to dry on the flat roofs; once dried in the sun, the grain would be taken to the mill to be ground into cracked wheat.

On other social occasions, young men and women would take their places side by side, locking hands and standing shoulder-to-shoulder in dabki, a stumping-like, traditional dance. Young adults would spend what little recreation time they had together, walking, playing chess or hunting. Although inter-faith marriages were rare, many romances blossomed under these conditions. This well-balanced community life was a legacy that my generation had inherited, but sadly have since managed to lose: this way of life is not only threatened but seems so fragile now that it has all but disappeared.

Growing segregation

Multi-faith communities are on the verge of extinction, not only in Lebanon but also across the globe. In this globalised era, which suggests connectivity, we are becoming more divided: instead of social integration and multi-faith tolerance, we are promoting segregation and isolation. It is pitiful that my generation has not preserved the harmonious inter-faith co-existence they inherited. I feel embarrassed, indeed ashamed, that I belong to a generation that will be remembered for causing fundamentalism rather than promoting peace and harmony among religious groups.

I hardly recognised the village when I visited Yarun in 2008. Driving south from Bint-Jbeil, I was struck by the villas that had sprouted in recent years. The simple one- or two-storey houses were overshadowed by four- and five-storey villas. As we made our way through the Muslim quarter, which we had to cross before reaching the Christian side, we encountered the outward display of the extraordinary wealth that has poured into Yarun since the bombardment of July 2006. The villa owners have tried to outdo one another in extravagant expenditure on the exteriors, yet there were no signs of interior decorations: there were no curtains or blinds inside the mansions. Indeed, I was told on good authority that most of the inhabitants use the ground floor only; some live permanently in the hallways, sleeping on flat mattresses under the stairs as if to uphold the memory of their past humble existence. At night, the villas would shine like beacons in the dark: their owners had installed generators to ensure that these villas remain lit during the regular blackouts in southern Lebanon.

This obscene and vulgar display of wealth seems utterly out of place in the surrounding landscape. Who, I began to wonder, were Muslim Yarunis trying to impress, Israel or the Christians in the village? The Christian houses had also changed. Although some still wore the scars of the 2006 attacks, many had acquired fortress-like fences as if to keep out unwanted intruders or an aggressive enemy. Who, we need to ask, is the enemy that is being kept out? Surely not Israel for, as we have established, Israel can and does strike from the air. Do the Christians in Yarun feel threatened by their Muslim neighbours? Or are they keeping other Christians at bay? The sense of community has disappeared; consequently we might describe life in Yarun now as segregated co-existence rather than as a multi-faith cordial community. Yarunis had managed to rebuild their homes out of the rubble, but had failed to restore the ethos which made their community so special in the past.

Israel's strategic bombardment in July 2006 widened the rift between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. Israeli forces targeted Muslim areas in the 35-day bombardment, claiming that they were harbouring the militants who were firing rockets into their country. Hence Muslim areas were hard hit while some Christian quarters escaped virtually untouched. Consequently, Muslim conspiracy theorists began to argue that the Lebanese Christians had struck a secret deal with Israel to avoid being hit. Yarun's Christian quarter, however, was one of the exceptions: it was bombed, Israel claimed, because Hezbollah's fighters set off their rockets from the Christian side to which Israel retaliated by returning fire.

Consequently, most of the properties in the Christian quarter, including the church, were severely damaged by Israeli missiles. Yet we cannot put the entire blame for the rift between the two faiths on Israel. Some areas of the country have not recovered from the 15-year civil war. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the capital Beirut: the green line has long gone but the invisible divide between the Christian east and Muslim west of the city is stronger than ever.

The intention to live in dignity

Much money is being spent on promoting intra-cultural harmony and inter-faith tolerance, if not co-existence. Some international aid agencies have been working very hard on educating communities in some developing countries to appreciate their own cultures. It seems to me that such organisations are trying to reinstate the kind of life in which I grew up but which is now fast disappearing. Although I am a strong believer in education as a form of development – I have relentlessly pursued education throughout my life – I doubt if further education would re-build Yarun's harmonious co-existence. Looking back on my parents' generation, they were not armed with university degrees, nor did they obtain special diplomas in social sciences to live in multi-faith communities. Previous generations were not as well-educated as we have become. They simply decided to live side by side and tolerate each others' differences. Their primary asset, it seems, was the intention to live in dignity.

Thanks to positive intentions, open dialogue and hard work, Christians and Muslims in Yarun managed to share the same language and the same space without infringing on each others' boundaries or abusing their respective faiths. They managed to uphold this way of life for centuries, perhaps for over a millennium. Although, like their ancestors, Christian and Muslim Yarunis still live in the same village, the ratios are now grossly disproportionate: the Muslims far outweigh the Christians in numbers and wealth.

I cannot claim that Yarun's past can provide us with a model for religious tolerance. Whilst not wanting to belittle the monumental achievements of some international aid organisations and their efforts to educate developing countries, I do want to highlight that what is needed is more inducement than aid. People in developing countries do not need academic qualifications, but rather the incentive to take charge of their own development programmes.

Thus, instead of giving aid freely, charitable organisations should demand that local people build their own programmes for development and request (and be awarded) funds reflecting the strength of their applications. This would instigate dialogue between community members and it would give locals ownership of their own projects. If we continue simply to give, we risk creating a culture that expects constant handouts, which in turn leads to disgruntled and unsatisfied communities. We should, for example, look at projects such as Katine, which was launched by the Guardian and the Observer in indigenous Africa, and build on what they have learned.

30 December 2010

Ancient Bible fragments reveal a forgotten history

New research has uncovered a forgotten chapter in the history of the Bible, offering a rare glimpse of Byzantine Jewish life and culture.

The study by Cambridge University researchers suggests that, contrary to long-accepted views, Jews continued to use a Greek version of the Bible in synagogues for centuries longer than previously thought. In some places, the practice continued almost until living memory.

The key to the new discovery lay in manuscripts, some of them mere fragments, discovered in an old synagogue in Egypt and brought to Cambridge at the end of the 19th century. The so-called Cairo Genizah manuscripts have been housed ever since in Cambridge University Library.

Now, a fully searchable online corpus (http://www.gbbj.org) has gathered these manuscripts together, making the texts and analysis of them available to other scholars for the first time.

"The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC is said to be one of the most lasting achievements of the Jewish civilization - without it, Christianity might not have spread as quickly and as successfully as it did," explained Nicholas de Lange, Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies in the Faculties of Divinity and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, who led the three-year study to re-evaluate the story of the Greek Bible fragments.

"It was thought that the Jews, for some reason, gave up using Greek translations and chose to use the original Hebrew for public reading in synagogue and for private study, until modern times when pressure to use the vernacular led to its introduction in many synagogues."

Close study of the Cairo Genizah fragments by Professor de Lange led to the discovery that some contained passages from the Bible in Greek written in Hebrew letters. Others contained parts of a lost Greek translation made by a convert to Judaism named Akylas in the 2nd century AD. Remarkably, the fragments date from 1,000 years after the original translation into Greek, showing use of the Greek text was still alive in Greek-speaking synagogues in the Byzantine Empire and elsewhere.

Manuscripts in other libraries confirmed the evidence of the Cambridge fragments, and added many new details. It became clear that Greek translations were in use among Jews in the Middle Ages.

Not only does the new research offer us a rare glimpse of Byzantine Jewish life and culture, but it also illustrates the cross-fertilisation between Jewish and Christian biblical scholars in the Middle Ages. "This is a very exciting discovery for me because it confirms a hunch I had when studying Genizah fragments 30 years ago," said Professor de Lange.

The online resource enables comparison of each word of the Hebrew text, the Greek translation - knows as the Septuagint after the 70 Jewish scholars said to have translated it - and the fragments of Akylas' and other Jewish translations from antiquity.

The resource was created following collaboration between research teams at Cambridge University, including Dr Cameron Boyd-Taylor and Dr Julia Krivoruchko, and King's College London. "This ambitious piece of collaborative digital scholarship required challenging technical difficulties to be solved," explained Paul Spence, who led the team at the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King's. "It draws together a wide variety of materials under a standards-based framework which provides multiple entry points into the material."

24 December 2010

Nativity Eve Holy Supper

As is true with all countries, customs and traditions vary from region to region and family to family. The majority of Slovaks are Roman Catholic but there are also large contingents of Greek or Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

Even though most Byzantine and Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian calendar, celebrate Christmas Eve on Jan. 6 and Christmas Day on Jan. 7, one thing is universal -- velija (veh-LEE-yah), literally "vigil" and meaning Slavic Christmas Eve Holy Supper.

Velija is a 12-dish (the number of dishes symbolizes the apostles) meatless feast whose preparations begin early on Christmas Eve. It is a solemn meal that brings the family together, sometimes from hundreds of miles away.

The Velija Table Is Prepared
Hay or straw is placed under the tablecloth or under the table -- or both -- symbolizing Christ's humble birth in a manger. A fine white tablecloth is placed over the straw representing the Babe's swaddling clothes. An extra place is always set to receive a traveling stranger who might be the Christ Child in disguise and to honor a deceased loved one.

Dinner doesn't begin until the first star of the evening is sighted, a job given to the young children of the household to keep them occupied while dinner is prepared.

Prayers and blessings are followed by breaking and eating the oplatky, a Communion-like wafer stamped with a nativity scene, spread with honey to symbolize the unleavened bread of the Passover supper. The husband breaks oplatky with his wife with good wishes and a kiss, and so it goes down the line of children from oldest to youngest. The head of the household dips his thumb in honey and makes the sign of the cross on everyone's forehead as a reminder to keep Christ foremost in their lives.

Coming from the Latin word oblata (offering), oplatky are common to both Slovaks and Poles (who call them oplatki), who are separated only by the natural boundary of the Tatra Mountains. Some say the custom started when snowbound villagers couldn't make it to midnight Mass on Christmas. The parish priest gave them blessed wafers weeks in advance so they could still partake in the Eucharist.

Each family contributed a share of flour to make the oplatky for the entire village on Dec. 13, the day after St. Lucy Day. After baking, the priest blessed the oplatky and children distributed them to each family with memorized Christmas greetings or Vins.

The Feast Begins
Once the oplatky have been shared, the meal begins with a toast of, usually, homemade red wine, followed by some type of tart soup (continuing the exodus theme of recalling the bitterness of slavery) -- machanka (sour mushroom), potato, or maybe pea soup with barley.

Next come freshwater fish, usually floured and quickly fried. Carp, trout and white fish are common. Bandurky (potatoes), bobalki (baked dough balls) with honey and poppyseeds or sauerkraut and onion, holubky (cabbage rolls) stuffed with mushrooms and rice, pagach, sometimes known as "Slovak pizza," which is thin raised dough baked either in a single or double layer filled with sweet cabbage or mashed potatoes, and pirohy dumplings filled with sweet cabbage, sauerkraut, prune lekvar, or cheese. Some families like loksa, a potato pancake type of dish.

Dessert is usually kolaci, strudels filled with walnuts, poppyseed, prune butter or cheese, apples and nuts. It is believed the order in which the courses are served signifies the sweetness, sourness, and sweetness, again, of life -- honey on the oplatky, sour soup, sweet pastries.

After the Meal
When the meal is finished the kolady or carols are sung. Sometimes there is a visit from the jaslickari or Star Carolers -- young men and boys dressed as the Three Kings or shepherds and an angel carrying a star on a pole. One member of the group carries a creche and, in song, tells the story of the nativity. Then, if they aren't snowbound, families bundle up and head off to midnight Mass.

Some families throw walnuts into the corners of every room to ensure good luck for the coming year. Others break them open to foretell the future. The four quarters of the walnut represent a quarter of the year. If one or more sections is healthy, then the coming year will be a good one. If one or more sections is black and shriveled, watch out!

No one is allowed to leave the table until the meal is finished. To do so would result in bad luck (or death) in the year to come. A lighted candle is on the vilija table during the entire meal. In some families, at the end of the supper, the candle is blown out by the eldest person. If the smoke goes up, the person's luck will be good. If it goes down, bad luck and, possibly, death await. The candle is then relighted and passed to the next eldest person until everyone has his chance. A final prayer is said by the head of the household and then it is deemed safe to leave the table.

Poppyseeds are eaten with abandon because they're considered lucky, recalling the pagan tradition of scattering poppyseeds at the doorway so an evil spirit intent on entering would be so preoccupied with picking up each tiny seed, it wouldn't enter the house.

A Very Unusual Tradition
>In some areas of Slovakia and Ukraine, the head of the household takes a spoonful of bobalki, loksa or kutia (a dish of boiled wheat mixed with honey, raisins and nuts) and throws it up on the ceiling. The more that sticks, the bigger the crops will be in the coming year!

Christmas Ornaments
Among the ornaments Slovaks hand on their Christmas trees are embossed wax eggs, known variously as kraslice, pysanky, kraseny jajcja, pysanka, pysane jajce, and farbanka. This art originated in Northeastern Slovakia and Southeastern Poland. Designs -- geometric patterns, caricatures, scenery, angels and religious symbols -- are drawn on natural-colored or dyed hollow eggshells with a kiska or metal pin and colored wax. Sometimes the eggs are painted with oils or acrylic paints with the embossed wax reserved for trimwork. They are displayed in special holders during the other seasons of the year.

18 December 2010

The Wise Men: Magi Kings of the East

In Christian tradition, the Magi (pronounced /ˈmædʒaɪ/; Greek: μάγοι, magoi), also referred to as the (Three) Wise Men, (Three) Kings, or Kings from the East, are a group of distinguished foreigners who are said to have visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity and in celebrations of Christmas. Magi is a term derived from Greek (meaning a priest of Zoroaster).

The Gospel of Matthew, the only one of the four Gospels to mention the Magi, states that they came "from the east" to worship the Christ, "born King of the Jews". Although the account does not tell how many they were, the three gifts led to a widespread assumption that they were three as well. Their identification as kings in later Christian writings is linked to Old Testament prophesies such as that in Isaiah 60:3, which describe the Messiah being worshipped by kings. Much later, this correct interpretation was wrongly challenged by the tradition-hating Protestant Reformation in imitation of the Christ-hating Jews.

The Magi are popularly referred to as wise men and kings. The word Magi is a Latinization of the plural of the Greek word magos (μαγος pl. μαγοι), itself from Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan magâunô, i.e. the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born, (see Yasna 33.7:' ýâ sruyê parê magâunô ' = ' so I can be heard beyond Magi '). The term refers to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars, and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general and led to the English term magic. Translated in the King James Version as wise men, the same translation is applied to the wise men led by Daniel of earlier Hebrew Scriptures (Daniel 2:48). The same word is given as sorcerer and sorcery when describing "Elymas the sorcerer" in Acts 13:6-11, and Simon Magus, considered a heretic by the early Church, in Acts 8:9-13.

Traditions identify a variety of different names for the Magi. In the Western Christian church they have been commonly known as:

  1. Melchior (Melichior, Melchyor)
  2. Caspar or Gaspar (Gathaspa, Jaspar, Jaspas, etc.)
  3. Balthasar (Bithisarea, Balthassar)

These names apparently derive from a Greek manuscript probably composed in Alexandria around 500 A.D., and which has been translated into Latin with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari. Another Greek document from the 8th century, of presumed Irish origin and translated into Latin with the title Collectanea et Flores, continues the tradition of three kings and their names and gives additional details. Many Chinese Christians believe that one of the magi came from China. This final idea is used by Christopher Moore in his novel Lamb.

Bible historian Chuck Missler mentions an Armenian tradition identifying the Magi as Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia and Gasper of India.

The phrase from the east is the only information Matthew provides about the region from which they came. Traditionally the view developed that they were Babylonian or Persians or Jews from Yemen as the Makrebs or kings of Yemen then were Jews, a view held for example by John Chrysostom. The majority belief was they were from Babylon, which was the centre of Zurvanism, and hence astrology, at the time; and may have retained knowledge from the time of their Jewish leadership by Daniel.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi found Jesus by following his star, which thus traditionally became known as the Star of Bethlehem. Various theories have been presented as to the nature of this star.

On finding him, they gave him three symbolic gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Warned in a dream that Judean king Herod intended to kill the child, they decided to return home by a different route. This prompted Herod to resort to killing all the young children in Bethlehem, an act called the Massacre of the Innocents, in an attempt to eliminate a rival heir to his throne. Jesus and his family had, however, escaped to Egypt beforehand. After these events they passed into obscurity. The story of the nativity in Matthew glorifies Jesus, likens him to Moses, and shows his life as fulfilling prophecy.

After the visit the Magi leave the narrative by returning another way so as to avoid Herod, and do not reappear. Gregory the Great waxed lyrical on this theme, commenting that having come to know Jesus we are forbidden to return by the way we came. There are many traditional stories about what happened to the Magi after this, with one having them baptised by St. Thomas on his way to India. Another has their remains found by Saint Helena and brought to Constantinople, and eventually making their way to Germany and the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral.

In recent tradition the Magi have been portrayed as three kings, or noble men, of different origin. One from Western Europe (usually Celtic-like from the British Isles or France), another of African Origin (usually Abyssinian, Ethiopian), the last from Asia either from the Arabian Peninsula (e.g. Yemen or Oman) or the Far East (usually China). The European is often portrayed with the Gold as the other two gifts were native to Africa and Asia so the Myrrh and Frankincense vary between "King".

There was a tradition that the Central Asian Naimans and their Christian Kerait relatives were descended from the Biblical Magi. This heritage passed to the Mongol dynasty of Buddhist Genghis Khan when Sorghaghtani, niece of the Kerait ruler Toghrul, married Tolui the youngest son of Genghis and became the mother of Mongke Khan and his younger brother and successor, Kublai Khan. Toghrul became identified with the legendary Central Asian Christian king, Prester John, whose Mongol descendants were sought as allies against the Muslims by contemporary European monarchs and popes.

The Magi are described as "falling down", "kneeling" or "bowing" in the worship of Jesus. This gesture, together with the use of kneeling in Luke's birth narrative, had an important effect on Christian religious practices. They were indicative of great respect, and typically used when venerating a king. Inspired by these verses, kneeling and prostration were adopted in the early Church. While prostration is now rarely practiced in the West, it is still relatively common in the Eastern Churches, especially during Lent. Kneeling has remained an important element of Christian worship to this day.

Three gifts are explicitly identified in Matthew: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Many different theories of the meaning and symbolism of the gifts have been brought forward. While gold is fairly obviously explained, frankincense, and particularly myrrh, are much more obscure.

The theories generally break down into two groups:

  1. All three gifts are ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king. Myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable.
  2. The three gifts had a spiritual meaning: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of priestship, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death.

Sometimes this is described more generally as gold symbolizing virtue, frankincense symbolizing prayer, and myrrh symbolizing suffering.

These interpretations are alluded to in the verses of the popular carol "We Three Kings" in which the magi describe their gifts.

Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment and as a penitential incense in funerals and cremations until the 15th century. The "holy oil" traditionally used by the Eastern Orthodox Church for performing the sacraments of chrismation and unction is traditionally scented with myrrh, and receiving either of these sacraments is commonly referred to as "receiving the Myrrh".

It was these three gifts, it is thought, which were the chief cause for the number of the Magi becoming fixed eventually at three.

This episode can be linked to Isaiah 60 and to Psalm 72 which report gifts being given by kings, and this has played a central role in the perception of the Magi as kings, rather than as astronomer-priests. In a hymn of the late 4th-century hispanic poet Prudentius, the three gifts have already gained their medieval interpretation as prophetic emblems of Jesus' identity, familiar in the carol "We Three Kings" by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., 1857.

John Chrysostom suggested that the gifts were fit to be given not just to a king but to God, and contrasted them with the Jews' traditional offerings of sheep and calves, and accordingly Chrysostom asserts that the Magi worshiped Jesus as God.

What subsequently happened to these gifts is never mentioned in the scripture, but several traditions have developed. One story has the gold being stolen by the two thieves who were later crucified alongside Jesus. Another tale has it being entrusted to and then misappropriated by Judas.

In the Monastery of St. Paul of Mount Athos there is a 15th century golden case containing purportedly the Gift of the Magi. It was donated to the monastery in the 15th century by Mara Branković, daughter of the King of Serbia Đurađ Branković, wife to the Ottoman Sultan Murat II and godmother to Mehmet II the Conqueror (of Constantinople). Apparently they were part of the relics of the Holy Palace of Constantinople and it is claimed they were displayed there since the 4th century AD. After the Athens earthquake of September 9, 1999 they were temporarily displayed in Athens in order to strengthen faith and raise money for earthquake victims.

Marco Polo claimed that he was shown the three tombs of the Magi at Saveh south of Tehran in the 1270s:
In Persia is the city of Saba, from which the Three Magi set out and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. And above them there is a square building, beautifully kept. The bodies are still entire, with hair and beard remaining.
A Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral, according to tradition, contains the bones of the Three Wise Men. Reputedly they were first discovered by Saint Helena on her famous pilgrimage to Palestine and the Holy Lands. She took the remains to the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople; they were later moved to Milan (some sources say by the city's bishop, Eustorgius I), before being sent to their current resting place by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I in AD 1164. The Milanese celebrate their part in the tradition by holding a medieval costume parade every 6 January.

A version of the detailed elaboration familiar to us is laid out by the 14th century cleric John of Hildesheim's Historia Trium Regum ("History of the Three Kings"). In accounting for the presence in Cologne of their mummified relics, he begins with the journey of Helena, mother of Constantine I to Jerusalem, where she recovered the True Cross and other relics:
Queen Helen… began to think greatly of the bodies of these three kings, and she arrayed herself, and accompanied by many attendants, went into the Land of Ind… after she had found the bodies of Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, Queen Helen put them into one chest and ornamented it with great riches, and she brought them into Constantinople... and laid them in a church that is called Saint Sophia.
The visit of the Magi is commemorated in most Western Christian churches by the observance of Epiphany, 6 January. The Eastern Orthodox celebrate the visit of the Magi on 25 December. The Magi are the patron saints of travelers.

The identification of the Magi as kings is linked to Old Testament prophesies that have the Messiah being worshipped by kings in Isaiah 60:3, Psalm 72:10, and Psalm 68:29. Early readers reinterpreted Matthew in light of these prophecies and elevated the Magi to kings. By AD 500 all commentators adopted the prevalent tradition that the three were kings, and this continued until the Protestant Reformation when theses humanists and modernists changed long-standing, traditional Christian beliefs.

Though the Qur'an omits Matthew's episode of the Magi, it was well known in Arabia. The Muslim encyclopaedist al-Tabari, writing in the 9th century, gives the familiar symbolism of the gifts of the Magi. Al-Tabari gave his source for the information to be the later 7th century writer Wahb ibn Munabbih.

Some new Protestant religious traditions of the last hundred years take a critical view of the Magi. The heretics known as "Jehovah's Witnesses" do not see the arrival of the Magi as something to be celebrated, but instead stress the Biblical condemnation of sorcery and astrology in such texts as Deuteronomy 18:10–11, Leviticus 19:26, and Isaiah 47:13–14. They also point to the fact that the star seen by the Magi led them first to a hostile enemy of Jesus, and only then to the child's location — the argument being that if this was an event from God, it makes no sense for them to be led to a ruler with intentions to kill the child before taking them to Jesus. Likewise, as Matthew 2:12 informs us, the Magi were warned by God not to return to the familicide King Herod. Thus, they believe, it seems reasonable to consider that the star, which evidently only the Magi could see (Matthew 2:7, 8), was the product of God's archenemy designed to perform an unholy act upon an innocent young child, Jesus.

17 December 2010

What is Frankincense and Where Does it Come From?

On the Frankincense Coast of Oman—as a child, I dutifully sang the lyrics to "We Three Kings" every holiday season. For anyone lacking a proper parochial school upbringing, these biblical Magi, guided by a star to Bethlehem from the East, brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Baby Jesus. Like many children of the soybean fields where I was raised, I had seen gold, I pictured frankincense as something regal and perhaps jewellike, and I dismissed myrrh as a spelling mistake.

The Bible does not disclose the originating point of the three kings. Historians venture that they might have come from Yemen, Iraq, or Iran. Chinese Christians believe they came from China, of course. Compelled in large part by childhood curiosity, I discarded the issue of the kings' provenance and set out instead in search of frankincense, or luban, as it is called in Arabic. I didn't have to go far. I was already in Muscat, the capital of Oman, a tiny sultanate on the Arabian Peninsula.

Frankincense is the very scent of Oman, deeply entrenched in the culture, burned as incense in homes and offices, added to perfumes, and used for medicinal purposes to ease everything from inflamed joints to congestion and anxiety. A traffic circle near the old stone city gates in Muscat features a gigantic incense burner in the middle. People even chew frankincense to freshen their breath and strengthen their teeth. I asked a dozen Omanis to tell me straight-up if they liked the smell, which is both woodsy and fruity, and ancient, which can describe a lot of smells, including my grandmother snapping Juicy Fruit gum in front of a campfire. It also is the scent of Catholic Mass. Every Omani I pressed professed a great love for the smell of frankincense and not in the way that the people of my hometown purport to love the smell of the soybean processing plants. In a factory town, that smell is employment. In Oman, the smell of frankincense is something more spiritual, even though frankincense is big business and has been for centuries. Somehow, frankincense manages to be more than a quantifiable export. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, also referred to as the Great Leader of Oman, has made frankincense a visible (and smellable) icon of a modern, welcoming Oman.

In ancient Oman, frankincense was one of the most important trade items in the Mediterranean region. The old port city of Khor Rori near Salalah is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes other archaeological wonders along the Frankincense Coast of the Dhofar region of Oman. This is where donkeys and camels brought bags of frankincense resin to waiting ships for transport to Mesopotamia, India, and China. Khor Rori dates at least to 300 B.C. and flourished until the fourth century A.D. The old sea gate leading from the stone fortress remains, opening onto a sandy path where the frankincense was set on its journey, a luxury item fit for royalty. Biblical scholars believe this is one of the reasons frankincense was chosen as a gift for the Christ child. Frankincense and myrrh, also a resin that comes from a tree, were used as perfumes and anointing oils, and these lands of Oman are referenced in both the Bible and the Quran.

In a dim cave in the mountains of Jebel al Qamra, not far from the Yemen border, I got the real story from a kindly, smooth-faced Muslim named Mohammed Mahaad Saheel bin Baafee. I asked why the wise men might have brought frankincense to Jesus. "To ward off evil spirits and snakes," he told me in Arabic. Plausible? Indeed.

For generations, Mohammed's family has tapped frankincense resin from the trees on their tribal land, scarred, rocky mountain faces that drop to the emerald waters of the Arabian Sea, offering expansive vistas of some of the most beautiful and desolate landscape in the world.

On a hot, dry day in December, Mohammed took me on a scraggly walk through his frankincense trees, a species called Boswellia sacra. These trees are also found in Yemen and Somalia. The conditions of the southern Oman coast are ideal for growing frankincense trees, which can reach 16 feet in height. Monsoon rains during the summer months and hot, desert conditions during the rest of the year help produce what is considered some of the finest and most expensive frankincense in the world. A 3.36-ounce bottle of Omani Amouge perfume with frankincense costs about $350.

To collect resin, Mohammed uses a metal blade to nick the tree, allowing droplets of white, milky sap to bleed slowly onto the bark. He will return in 10 days to collect the gum resin, which will have started to harden. The resin pellets are then spread on the ledge of a cave for four months to dry more completely, forming rocks that are sorted by hand.

Silver, clear frankincense is the highest quality grade, and it is usually reserved for the Great Leader, making it difficult for Westerners to acquire. Brown, muddy frankincense is the cheapest and most widely available. The bigger and whiter the rock, the better. Omanis harvest frankincense twice a year and believe that frankincense resin from the fall, after the summer rains, is the best.

This new knowledge of frankincense is a tricky thing. Like the frankincense itself, it must be weighed carefully and used selectively. A few years ago I worked briefly on a cranberry bog in Massachusetts. That Thanksgiving, I growled whenever a family member nonchalantly passed up my homemade cranberry sauce. Do you know what went into gathering those berries? Do you have any idea?

I don't want to be that person at Christmas, the one who launches into an exhaustive explanation of the origins of frankincense. Or the aunt whose reporting in the Middle East will lead her to assure her Catholic-schooled nephews that Adam and Eve more likely fell from grace because of an apricot and not an apple, in spite of what their teacher said.

I don't want to be the one who takes the mystery out of the Magi. Then again, it's still not clear where they came from, even if I can now picture the bags of resin in a pouch, hanging from the side of a camel, marching across the desert.

16 December 2010

Hanukkah, the Biblical Festival of Lights of Judith and the Macabees

Hanukkah (Hebrew: חֲנֻכָּה‎, Tiberian: Ḥănukkāh, nowadays usually spelled חנוכה pronounced [χanuˈka] in Modern Hebrew, also romanized as Chanukah or Chanuka), also known as the Festival of Lights is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BC. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar.

The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched Menorah or Hanukiah, one additional light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. The typical Menorah consists of 8 branches with an additional raised branch. The extra light is called a shamash (Hebrew: שמש, "attendant" or "sexton") and is given a distinct location, usually above or below the rest. The purpose of the shamash is to have a light available for use, as using the Hanukkah lights themselves is forbidden.

The name "Hanukkah" derives from the Hebrew verb "חנך", meaning "to dedicate". On Hanukkah, the Jews regained control of Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple.

Many homiletical explanations have been given for the name:
  • The name can be broken down into חנו כ"ה, "they rested [on the] twenty-fifth", referring to the fact that the Jews ceased fighting on the 25th day of Kislev, the day on which the holiday begins.
  • חנוכה (Hanukkah) is also the Hebrew acronym for ח נרות והלכה כבית הלל — "Eight candles, and the halakha is like the House of Hillel". This is a reference to the disagreement between two rabbinical schools of thought — the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai — on the proper order in which to light the Hanukkah flames. Shammai opined that eight candles should be lit on the first night, seven on the second night, and so on down to one on the last night. Hillel argued in favor of starting with one candle and lighting an additional one every night, up to eight on the eighth night. Jewish law adopted the position of Hillel.
The story of Hanukkah, along with its laws and customs, is entirely missing from the Mishna apart from several passing references (Bikkurim 1:6, Rosh HaShanah 1:3, Taanit 2:10, Megillah 3:4 and 3:6, Moed Katan 3:9, and Bava Kama 6:6). Rav Nissim Gaon postulates in his Hakdamah Le'mafteach Hatalmud that information on the holiday was so commonplace that the Mishna felt no need to explain it. Reuvein Margolies suggests that as the Mishnah was redacted after the Bar Kochba revolt, its editors were reluctant to include explicit discussion of a holiday celebrating another relatively recent revolt against a foreign ruler, for fear of antagonizing the Romans.

Hanukkah is described in the Talmud. The Gemara, in tractate Shabbat 21, focuses on Shabbat candles and moves to Hanukkah candles and says that after the forces of Antiochus IV had been driven from the Temple, the Maccabees discovered that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, with enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for a single day. They used this, yet it burned for eight days (the time it took to have new oil pressed and made ready).

The Talmud presents three options:
  1. The law requires only one light each night per household
  2. A better practice is to light one light each night for each member of the household
  3. The most preferred practice is to vary the number of lights each night
Except in times of danger, the lights were to be placed outside one's door, on the opposite side of the Mezuza, or in the window closest to the street. Rashi, in a note to Shabbat 21b, says their purpose is to publicize the miracle.

The ancient Jewish Historian Flavius Josephus narrates in his book Jewish Antiquities XII, how the victorious Judas Maccabbeus ordered lavish yearly eight-day festivities after rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem that had been profaned by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Josephus does not say the festival was called Hannukkah but rather the "Festival of Lights":
"Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies."
The story of Hanukkah is alluded to in the book of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees of the Bible (which the Jews and Protestants have removed from their Bibles) but Hanukkah is not specially mentioned; rather, a story similar in character, and obviously older in date, is the one alluded to in 2 Maccabees 1:18 et seq according to which the relighting of the altar fire by Nehemiah was due to a miracle which occurred on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, and which appears to be given as the reason for the selection of the same date for the rededication of the altar by Judah Maccabee.

Another source is the Megillat Antiochus. This work (also known as "Megillat HaHasmonaim", "Megillat Hanukkah" or "Megillat Yevanit") is in both Aramaic and Hebrew; the Hebrew version is a literal translation from the Aramaic original. Recent scholarship dates it to somewhere between the 2nd and 5th Centuries, probably in the 2nd Century, with the Hebrew dating to the seventh century. It was published for the first time in Mantua in 1557. Saadia Gaon, who translated it into Arabic in the 9th Century, ascribed it to the Maccabees themselves, disputed by some, since it gives dates as so many years before the destruction of the second temple in 70 AD. The Hebrew text with an English translation can be found in the Siddur of Philip Birnbaum.

The Christian Bible refers to Jesus being at the Jerusalem Temple during "the feast of the dedication and it was winter" in John 10:22-23.

The eating of dairy foods, especially cheese, on Hanukkah is a minor custom that has its roots in the story of Judith. The so-called "deuterocanonical" book of Judith (Yehudit or Yehudis in Hebrew), which is no longer part of the Jewish or Protestant Tanach, records that, Holofernes, an Assyrian general, had surrounded the village of Bethulia as part of his campaign to conquer Judea. After intense fighting, the water supply of the Jews is cut off and the situation became desperate. Judith, a pious widow, told the city leaders that she had a plan to save the city. Judith went to the Assyrian camps and pretended to surrender. She met Holofernes, who was smitten by her beauty. She went back to his tent with him, where she plied him with cheese and wine. When he fell into a drunken sleep, Judith beheaded him and escaped from the camp, taking the severed head with her. When Holofernes' soldiers found his corpse, they were overcome with fear; the Jews, on the other hand, were emboldened, and launched a successful counterattack. The town was saved, and the Assyrians defeated. There is a longstanding Jewish tradition that Judith was the daughter of Yochanan the Kohen Gadol (and consequently a sister of Mattathias the Hasmonean and an aunt of Judah the Maccabee). In the Rema's gloss on the Shulchan Aruch he writes “There are authorities (Kol Bo and the RaN) who say that one should eat cheese on Hanukkah, because the miracle was performed with milk that Judith fed the enemy.” The Chofetz Chaim there adds in his Mishna Berurah on the words “that Judith fed,” “She was the daughter of Yochanan, the Kohen Gadol. There was a decree that every espoused bride should submit to the dignitary first before the consummation of her marriage. She fed cheese to the head of the oppressors in order to intoxicate him and cut his head and they all fled.”

Timeline of Hanukkah:
  • 198 BC: Armies of the Seleucid King Antiochus III (Antiochus the Great) oust Ptolemy V from Judea and Samaria.
  • 175 BC: Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) ascends the Seleucid throne.
  • 168 BC: Under the reign of Antiochus IV, the Temple is looted, Jews are massacred, and Judaism is outlawed.
  • 167 BC: Antiochus orders an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple. Mattathias, and his five sons John, Simon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah lead a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah becomes known as Judah Maccabe (Judah The Hammer).
  • 166 BC: Mattathias dies, and Judah takes his place as leader. The Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom begins; It lasts until 63 BCE
  • 165 BC: The Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy is successful. The Temple is liberated and rededicated (Hanukkah).
  • 142 BC: Establishment of the Second Jewish Commonwealth. The Seleucids recognize Jewish autonomy. The Seleucid kings have a formal overlordship, which the Hasmoneans acknowledged. This inaugurates a period of great geographical expansion, population growth, and religious, cultural and social development.
  • 139 BC: The Roman Senate recognizes Jewish autonomy.
  • 131 BC: Antiochus VII dies. The Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom throws off Syrian rule completely
  • 130 BC: Antiochus VII besieges Jerusalem, but withdraws.
  • 96 BC: An eight year civil war begins.
  • 83 BC: Consolidation of the Kingdom in territory east of the Jordan River.
  • 63 BC: The Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom comes to an end because of rivalry between the brothers Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II, both of whom appeal to the Roman Republic to intervene and settle the power struggle on their behalf. The Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) is dispatched to the area. Twelve thousand Jews are massacred as Romans enter Jerusalem. The Priests of the Temple are struck down at the Altar. Rome annexes Judea.
The Jews believe that after this time all prophecy ended and would only begin at the coming of the Messiah, which happened less than a century later with the birth of Jesus the Christ and his Forerunner, John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Testament.

15 December 2010

Jesus' Great-Grandmother Identified

The great-grandmother of Jesus was a woman named Ismeria, according to Florentine medieval manuscripts analyzed by a historian.

The legend of St. Ismeria, presented in the current Journal of Medieval History, sheds light on both the Biblical Virgin Mary's family and also on religious and cultural values of 14th-century Florence.

"I don't think any other woman is mentioned" as Mary's grandmother in the Bible, Catherine Lawless, author of the paper, told Discovery News. "Mary's patrilineal lineage is the only one given."

Lawless studied the St. Ismeria story, which she said has been "ignored by scholars," in two manuscripts: the 14th century "MS Panciatichiano 40" of Florence's National Central Library and the 15th century "MS 1052" of the Riccardiana Library, also in Florence.

"According to the legend, Ismeria is the daughter of Nabon of the people of Judea, and of the tribe of King David," wrote Lawless. She married "Santo Liseo," who is described as "a patriarch of the people of God." The legend continues that the couple had a daughter named Anne who married Joachim. After 12 years, Liseo died. Relatives then left Ismeria penniless.

Ismeria then goes to a hospital where she finds refuge. She is said to perform a miracle, filling a shell with fish to feed all of the hospital's patients. After this miracle she prays to be taken away from the "vainglory of this world."

After God called her to Paradise, a rector at the hospital informed the Virgin Mary and Jesus of her passing. They departed for the hospital with the 12 Apostles, Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary Cleophas. There they paid honor to St. Ismeria.

She also pointed out that "the great bulk of Christian martyrs of the west died under the Roman persecutions, which ended in the fourth century."

"The grandmother of the Virgin was no widow who threatened the patrimony of her children by demanding the return of her dowry, nor did she threaten the family unit by remarrying and starting another lineage," she added. "Instead, her life could be seen as an ideal model for Florentine penitential women."

"What is so striking about St. Ismeria," Carolyn Muessig of the University of Bristol's Department of Theology and Religious Studies told Discovery News, "is that she is a model for older matrons. Let's face it: Older female role models are hard to come by in any culture."

"But the fact that St. Ismeria came to the fore in late medieval Florence," Muessig concluded, "reveals some of the more positive attitudes that medieval culture had towards the place and the importance of women in society."
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