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Posts Tagged ‘Science and Faith’

St Nick

St. Nikolas of Myra, the prototype of Santa Claus is revered throughout the world. Photo credit: the author.

I am, at times and by spells, a true believer. From my earliest memories until the age of eight I was indeed a true believer. Until an embarrassingly advanced age, I trusted implicitly, without question, what I was told—especially by my elders and by older children. As a child, I believed devoutly in Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and the North Pole workshop. Fortunately, I rarely heard tales of witches and goblins or trolls in my bedtime stories, or I would assuredly have been terrified by an absolute faith in those horrific fantasies, as well.

I began first to appropriate the Clausian mythology almost osmotically. The grand elf appeared soon after Thanksgiving in all the shops and stores of the city. He—or his surrogate as I learned when I inquired—even held court in the big department store downtown in Mobile, Alabama. I accepted as believable the explanations of the only-approximately-polar attire of Gayfer Department Store Santas: shoe covers to simulate boots and false cotton whiskers. Santa’s “helpers” were in abundant attendance, too, characters who supposedly reported their conversations to the jolly elf, His Great Redness, himself. I found it an inescapable and seductive prospect that my deepest desires could be granted by a benevolent, generous old elf in a red suit if I but let him in on my secret wish by whatever means available. Thus, I was compelled to believe. Just to be sure he got the message, I also wrote to him in block letters on a Big Chief pad of blue-lined paper addressed to “Mr. S. Claus, North Pole.” I told of my longing for an impossibly expensive bicycle. So trusting of his intent and benevolence was I that it did not occur to me that his clandestine nightly visit should have been slightly threatening. That he annually persisted in his recidivistic practice of committing a class-C-misdemeanor of global breaking and entering on the evening of 24 December was of no concern at all.

The Gospel According to Clement Moore

I found “The Night Before Christmas” a wondrously compelling tale, which my faithful father and mother read to me, my sister, and my brother every Christmas Eve. Flying reindeer! Imagine the sight! Reindeer, themselves, were exotic enough for a swamp-rat like me to comprehend, but flying reindeer? I had seen flying squirrels and flying bats as well as millions of birds on the wing. But I had never seen a Lapland reindeer at all and certainly not a flying one. But who was I to question the veracity of such accounts of air-borne sleighs, accounts that were documented in sacred print and attested to by radio reports of his progress across the globe? Had I not even once received a telegram from the North Pole encouraging my “nice-ness”?

I was just a child of eight. I was discovering daily other wonders previously unknown to me that were being revealed to my wondering eyes in books and in the tales my science teacher told. I was learning that my imagination did not limit the range of what is Reality. Thus, I chose to hope and suspended any doubt. To doubt might make it impossible to acquire the bike that I so wanted. And thus I waited. I suppressed my guilt at my mercenary faith.

Christmas 1955 was approaching. I was growing anxious. How would Santa fit my bike into his small sled or down a chimney? How did he enter our house that had no chimney? And would he be able to find me when we were visiting at my Aunt Vivian and Uncle “Doc’s” house in Columbus, Georgia?

“No doubts!” I reminded myself, but I fretted anyway. When I shared my concerns at supper the week before Christmas, my parents remarked that surely Santa could find me since he kept up with such things routinely, and anyway, perhaps he might bring a special gift as a special pre-Christmas delivery before we left on the trip. The next night again we sat at supper.

Before dessert my parents stopped, looked at each other. “Did you hear that? I thought I heard sleigh bells.” Mother declared.

Dad suggested, “Sammy, why don’t you go look in the living room, and tell us what you find?”

I complied and was overjoyed to discover a bicycle, shiny and new, sitting in the middle of the floor. No tag or bow was necessary; I knew for whom it was, and I knew who had brought it—a surreptitious, hasty reindeer aviator.

After several minutes of exaltation, I rushed outside to tell Pete and Dean Cooper, my boyhood neighbors and pals, of the miraculous appearing of my great gift. They were likewise pleased for me, as real friends should be. They even assisted me in searching for reindeer prints in the dirt. I found several suspicious marks that were evidence enough that I had been, indeed, visited minutes before by Saint Nick himself and by his flying herd.

Xmas Reading

Part of every Christmas eve at the author’s house was a review of The Night Before Christmas. Sammy, Dad, Cindy Lou, and Baby Dale absorb the gripping poem ca. 1954. Photo credit: Matteson family snapshot scanned by Cindy (Matteson) King.

But I secretly wondered. I had heard the smug pronouncements of the second-grade Santa-agnostics. I half-worried that I was the victim of a conspiracy, a hoax, a grand deception. But I kept quiet about my growing doubt as we traveled to Columbus, Georgia for a family Christmas.

I looked on Aunt Vivian and Uncle Doc as aristocrats. Uncle Doc Jordan—“Jur-den” as it was pronounced in the proper vernacular of western Georgia—was a respected urologist. He always wore a bow tie that, amazingly, was not a clip-on, but rather the real thing. He reminded me of the many illustrations of Saint Nicolas that I had seen: short, silver haired, balding and a little stout, with “smoke circling his head like a wreath.” Only “Doc” was somewhat strange; he smoked cigarettes held in a Dunhill black lacquer cigarette holder that with his glasses evoked the mystique of FDR. Uncle Doc spoke earthily with a gravelly drawl but always in a charming and sophisticated manner. Once he examined his sister-in-law Ruth, who was suffering from a bladder ailment. He gleefully reported to the family that he had found a Green Stamp adhering to her derriere, probably due to a wayward saving stamp that had fallen into her dresser drawer. “Sister, do you always give Green Stamps to your customers?” He snickered as he recounted his question to the adults. I did not fully comprehend his meaning at the time. He only gave me a sly wink and a nod.

Aunt Vivian was a giant woman who towered over her physician husband. They had met professionally years before when she worked as an LVN, but now she managed their large household and two rowdy boys. Hers was an elegant table that often baffled me. I tasted politely the strangely pale spread that they called “butter.” “Give me my yellow oleo margarine-butter, thank you!” I thought but did not say. There were also casseroles concocted of exotic substances like egg plant that looked like no egg or plant that I had ever seen before and that my child’s palate did not appreciate. But the dark golden candied yams with white punctuations of melted marshmallow I devoured. I wondered between bites if the strange and fancy foods that their dark skinned cook prepared and passed to their gray haired maid in her starched gray uniform, who served it on silver trays, was what made my aunt and uncle seem so sophisticated.

The Jordans lived in a large multi-story red brick house that accommodated all of the assembled family for the holiday. I was assigned a guest bed situated at the top of the grand staircase that led up from the living room out of sight of the festive room but only barely out of earshot. Christmas Eve finally came and the other children and I were at last dispatched to bed. But sleep did not come soon to me. I worried that if I lost my saintly faith the magic of Christmas Eve would vanish as well. Simultaneously, I wanted to see for myself the mystic elf materialize in the room below, but dreaded the unthinkable truth. Late in the evening the house grew quiet except for suspicious noises that drifted up from below. I struggled not to listen too closely, wondering if it were Santa or some other individual “making Christmas.” I had seen unusual lumps under a quilt in the trunk of our car when my father had put in the suitcases earlier. I ached with doubt, not wanting my myth to die, but not willing to live ignorant and foolish, a child forever.

In the early morning as the sun slipped through the crack in the blinds and poked me in the eye. I awoke. I lay in bed awake. I did not give in to the compulsion to run downstairs until I heard my name being called, “Sammy! It’s Christmas!” Sammy required no second call. The living room was beautiful. Everywhere there were brightly packaged gifts for everyone. I recognized some of the wrapping paper from trips to the market. “Did Mrs. Claus shop at Delchamps too?” I secretly wondered. The cookies and milk that we had left for Santa were gone. A note lay in their place. It read, “THANKS, SANTA,” written in a hand that reminded me of my mother’s block script. Like too much sugar in a cold glass of iced tea, my doubts crystallized and precipitated into apostasy with this last teaspoon of evidence.

A Fall from Santa’s Grace

Sometime during Christmas Day I silently decided that I would not believe any more, despite the risks. Santa Claus dissolved in my mind. The myth died in me. I did not speak of it, but I slipped into unbelief. I returned to Mobile less a child of wonder than when I had departed.

At sixteen, those same feelings of unease returned. I began to question whether the stories that I had heard in church and during weekly squirming hours at Sunday School—tales that the adults and older children around me loved and believed so devoutly—were only childish myths like stories of the great polar benefactor, too. How does one know the truth, if indeed there is a Truth?

The same aching faith-storms I knew in my long Georgia-Christmas night rose up again in my mind as viciously as the meteorological gales that lashed Bayfront Road. I began to think about what I had heard and to review and examine what I thought I knew. I learned from credible historians that Jesus was indeed real; he was not a made-up character, a mere excuse for Christmas retail. The records of his life, the Gospels, while controversial in their origins, were not invented in the middle ages nor was the Bible “written by Shakespeare” as one ignorant and arrogant self-styled atheist high school acquaintance claimed, even if the English translation I was reading was filled with a hundred pages of “thee” and “thou” and “Yea! Verily . . .”

I learned that Saint Nicholas was also a person, a bishop of third century Asia Minor, who had such a generous heart that he did many deeds of kindness in secret. His bones can still be visited in the village of Bari in southern Italy. Yet, how had a real person, one who acted in real time and space been so transformed into a mythical elf? Even more troubling was the thought that, perhaps over two millennia, the real Rabbi Jeshua had been corrupted into a Christ myth. I had to know. I dug deeper, fearfully at first. I began to consider the major religions of the world. I examined the major philosophies of the ages. I thought about the evidence for and against the proposition of God and of the Christian God, in particular. In my search I was helped by conversations with my wise and kind pastor, Brother Mahlon Thomason. (We in the 1950s South always called our pastor and deacons, “Brother” in a reverential tone.) He never seemed to be shocked at any proposition that I brought to his attention, nor did he ever tell me I was wrong. Rather he simply asked me questions that often began, “Have you considered . . . ?” I felt safe to talk to him about what was troubling me. I began to feel that I need not fear to examine my doubts or to face the truth, whatever it was.

A Transforming Story

In my deliberations—the deliberations of a jury of one—I became convinced that I could get a sense of who this Joshua (another transliteration of the common first century name Jesus) really was. I concluded that he is and had been a transforming personality to everyone who met him, in person, or in the witness of the New Testament, down through the centuries. Even Nicholas of Myrna, the original Saint Nick, was changed when he met the Christ of the Bible. His character had been transformed by his faith and he was never the same afterward. I, too, had met God in my own experience, not just as a myth or in a story, but in my own life and I had been existentially changed forever by that encounter. The track of my life took a turn when at age nine I committed what I was and would become to him. While the storm of doubt and self-questioning raged, I had an anchor: I did not just know about God; I felt that I actually knew God Himself. I had never really met Santa Claus, even though impersonators had tried to delude me with tangible fakes. Conversely, I really knew this very God by intangible, but nevertheless real encounters. What I concluded was that there was evidence, and that it made sense. I became a believer again, not a believer in a fairy tale told to a child, but rather a convinced mature believer who is persuaded by evidence and reasonable argument. In the decades that followed, even as I pursued my calling as a natural scientist, that persuasion became even more compelling. The physical universe appeared to me to be ancient but not eternal. No means was found by which it could have created itself. Moreover, mankind was not inevitable on this planet. That we are, indeed as is all we encounter, a wonder, a providential grace. The more I learned, the more beautiful I found the universe to be. Indeed, it is good. And what of the human condition? I saw the image of God imprinted in me as well as in each person I met. Yet we are ever striving souls that struggle to have our own way, preternaturally estranged from that glorious promise, potentially holy but more often horrific.

Now, I see all of creation in the light of the story of a loving God rescuing His wayward children through a redeeming Christ. The heavens are indeed telling the glory of God, the story of a real event that occurred in history and of a life that was lived in the first century of this current era. That story proclaimed that there is hope for humanity, but only in redemption.

It is a truism that not all we think we see is real. We sometimes find what we are looking for, despite the evidence to the contrary. Thus, I have been on my guard to critique my persuasions since my youth. Conversely, not all we cannot see is unreal. In the end the evidence of what is actual must decide the issue for us. We must only have the courage to look at the facts as squarely as we can and take what we find for what it is. Then we must risk all that we are—or that we have—to live by that knowledge and walk about in that light. Then and only then—my experience prompts me to believe—have we the right of claiming ourselves honestly to be true believers.

Rainbow

Does knowing that the beauty of the rainbow arises proximally from the dispersive refraction of sunlight through droplets of water reduce any of its glory or obscure its ultimate meaning? Photo credit: the author.

 

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First page of Genesis (Hebrew: Bereshith) from Xanten Bible 1294 CE. Modified from on-line photo: New York Public LIbrary, http://exhibitions.nypl.org/threefaiths/node/19?highlight=1

First page of Genesis (Hebrew: Bereshith) from Xanten Bible 1294 CE. Modified from on-line photo: New York Public LIbrary, http://exhibitions.nypl.org/threefaiths/node/19?highlight=1

From my earliest years I was curious about the things I saw and heard about. “Why?” was a question that my parents heard all too often from this child. “Why does the sun always come up over the bay and set in the swamp? Why do the seasons come when they do? Where did the dinosaurs come from? How old are the rocks?” I looked for answers everywhere: in the encyclopedia, in library books, in magazines, everywhere—even in the field; and since we were church-going folk, I looked in the Bible for answers to my questions as to how the natural world worked.

I Misunderstood the Bible

The picture I took away from the big black leather-bound family Bible, after sifting through the “thees” and “thous,” was that the sun moved across the sky daily like a “bridegroom going forth in his chariot,” that the earth was like a large circular, but flat, picnic cloth that floated on nothing and that God would on occasion take by the edges and shake out in earthquakes. I also read in the margins that—according to a Bishop Ussher—the world was created on October 22, 4004 B.C. That was, to my young mind, inconceivably ancient; even older that my Grandpa, or his elder brother Uncle John A. Moates, the oldest man in the world, according to my reckoning. But I was soon presented with evidence that I had severely underestimated the antiquity of the “Ancient of Days;” I had overlooked His unimaginable patience; and I had discounted God’s supreme cleverness at building mechanical universes. I had misunderstood, it seems. I learned that the sun did not orbit the earth in his daily trip across the sky, as I naively envisioned, but rather it was the earth that revolved, carrying me under the sun; moreover, while the earth and the sun did indeed dance, it is not the sun that gyrates but it is the earth, like a small child, that orbits yearly the grandfather sun.

Later as I read again the beautiful words contained in the Psalms, I understood them this time as descriptive of the same experience I shared with Iron-Age readers and the profound truth that interprets this majestic universe as both a paean and a signpost to the Maker. Thus, when I considered evidence of the incredible antiquity of the physical universe at 13.7 billion years, I did not discount what I read in the Word, but instead came to understand that God is so much more senior that I had appreciated and that while old, the universe is not eternal. Furthermore, when I learned of genes, DNA and the unity of life on this planet, I was humbled. That I shared common ancestors with other primates did not make God seem smaller or less capable to me, but, on the contrary, it was an even more impressive miracle in Natural History that instead of arriving in a “poof” and a cloud of magical dust, events were shepherded in just the right way and at just the right time over eons so that mankind, “Adam” and I came to be, distant relatives to the chimpanzee but very much different, imbued with a spirit, the very spiritual breath of God.

A Humbling Thought

I thought “Who am I to tell the Maker of the universe, of the heavens and the earth, how He should have done it?” I find it all so astonishing that God did not perform a colossal magic trick in bringing the myriad forms of life on this water world, but by patience and clever means intentionally formed and animated all earthly life, even humanity. Perhaps he could have done it more straightforwardly, but the evidence indicates otherwise, and I doubt that He would deceive us by putting false evidence in our path to lead us astray.

Instead, I have concluded that God is just far more subtle than I first thought. He is considerate, as well, to let us in on who He is, speaking to us down the millennia through his spokesmen in words and mental pictures we could understand. But to understand His message clearly we must translate the story, its language, its cultural idiom, its cosmology into words and images that make sense to our child-like minds. When we do that job well we see that the truth about God in the book is richer, more nuanced, more exciting than we thought at first. God is far more than we had initially imagined and is even more worthy of our worship than we anticipated at the outset.

Solar Flare May 5, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/Goddard/S. Weissinger on-line at http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/nasas-sdo-observes-cinco-de-mayo-solar-flare

Solar Flare May 5, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/Goddard/S. Weissinger on-line at http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/nasas-sdo-observes-cinco-de-mayo-solar-flare

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sliderule

A “Caesar Cipher” side rule that substitutes one letter of cipher text for another letter of plain text. Photo credit: ciphermachines.com/pictures/SlideRule/sliderule.jpg

As a pre-teen I became fascinated by ciphers and codes. The idea that one could transmit a secret English language message by means of a simple substitutionary cipher intrigued me. Indeed, the “Caesar cipher,” in which the alphabet is shifted a fixed number of spaces was great fun to play with; for example, a two space shift replaces C for A, D for B, E for C etc. Thus, the plaintext, “YOUR FATHER LOVES YOU,” became in ciphertext, “AQWTH CVJGT NQXGU AQW,” grouping the encrypted letters in clusters of five. The fun came in trying to break the code without the help of a key.

I, like Ralphie Parker of A Christmas Story, was enthralled by the Ovaltine decoder ring. Unlike Ralphie, however, I was not disappointed by the messages I received. The deciphered text did not urge me to “Drink Ovaltine,” a crass exploitative and inane message. As I grew more mature, I realized that coded messages lay hidden everywhere. In letters of written languages are coded sounds and thoughts. I marveled at the alien scripts of other tongues: Greek, Hebrew and, most strange to me, Chinese ideograms such as Tiān 天, the heavens, that sensibly enough is a modification of the symbol for large: Dà 大 , formed by the addition of a bar at the top. This was a visual code that fascinated me then and still intrigues me today. Thus, I had to acknowledge that other systems of communication, so foreign to my experience, were as valid as my own. And I saw coded text everywhere in other ways.

Caesar Cipher decoder ring. Photo credit: ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/310W9ajtasL.jpg

Caesar Cipher decoder ring. Photo credit: ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/310W9ajtasL.jpg

I discovered science early and realized that all around me were puzzles written in code that, with effort and cleverness, we could decypher. My life has led down the path of science to the life of a physicist. Physics is more than a career that I have chosen; it is who I am. I have an innate urge to understand how things work. To my delight, I have found that the universe, large and small, can be decrypted. What a gift to humanity: a comprehensible world! Even as a youth in the swamps of Alabama, I could see and understand the fall of an acorn from an oak or the progress of a ripple on the stream.

Friends and strangers have often asked me with wondering looks how I, as a rational scientist, can be a Christ-follower, a theist. Such queries from others and from myself prompt me to reflection and (typically) to read. Last year, I finally read a work of Blaise Pascal, one of my scientific heroes. La Penseé, “The Thoughts,” are a compilation of this eighteenth century natural philosopher’s metaphysical musings and notes for a treatise he never completed. Among his notes is the fragment in which he speaks of the principal character of the Bible “Dieu est un Dieu caché,” that is, “God is a hidden God,” he remarks. Hidden, like a treasure cached or stored away out of sight, but accessible to the blessed. Following Pascal’s lead, I see that science may decode the cypher of natural phenomenon only to reveal a plaintext in a language unknown to science. Just as the breaking of the infamous Enigma Code used by the Nazis during World War II, required both advanced cryptologic analysis and German language translation, in the same way science may review “facts” about the Kosmos but be inadequate to provide any sense of the meaning hidden therein. Yet, it seems to me that the meaning of it all is of primary importance.

Indeed, many scientist observe the elegant universe with its exquisite laws and intricate workings and see no meaning or purpose in it, at all. I, on the other hand, see the wonders around us and my heart rejoices. Viewed through the lens of the gospel, the night sky speaks to me and my soul sings with the Psalmist: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork./Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge./There is no speech, nor are there words whose voice is not heard.” (Psalm 19:1-3)

My heart hurts for those who, like my color blind friends who cannot appreciate the beauty of the sunset, seem to be blind to the riches of God toward us. I suspect that this is what the doctrine of election in Christian theology “looks like” in reality: those who are not graced by God, “just don’t get it.” In response I can only offer three suggestions: (1) the testimony of my life proclaims that all creation recounts the glory of a Creator who loves us and desires fellowship with us, rebellious though we have been; (2) the witness of giants in the faith and culture throughout the ages declares His existence, the evidence of men who like Pascal faced an uncertain future as do we and lived triumphantly; (3) the ultimate Rosetta Stone of the Kosmos: the collections of little books known as the Holy Bible provides a reliable lexicon for an alien tongue exposed in the plaintext of decrypted science.

Thus, in fact, we have a grand and holy decoder ring at our ready disposal to help us make sense of the meaning of it all. A helpful hint to the meaning of the decrypted message? A key to unlocking the true meaning of it all? “God so loved the Kosmos that he gave his only begotten that whosoever believes in him will have everlasting life.”

诸 天 述 说 神 的 荣 耀, All the heavens天recount God’s神dazzling glory. (Psalms 19:1) Photo credit: risalahmujahidin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Space-Wallpapers.jpg

诸 天 述 说 神 的 荣 耀,
All the heavens 天 recount God’s 神 dazzling glory. (Psalms 19:1)
Photo credit: risalahmujahidin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Space-Wallpapers.jpg

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Globe at Waterman Steamship Lines World Headquarters  in Mobile. AL. Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1969

Globe at Waterman Steamship Lines World Headquarters in Mobile. AL. Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1969

The world is round, round like a green-gray melon. I believe this. I know this as fact. I know this deep within myself. I know this, not because I read it in a thick, dusty book or heard it whispered in my ear by a classmate. I know that the earth is round just like the globe I always stared at in the lobby of the building where the Waterman Steamship Line had its worldwide headquarters a few blocks from Bienville Square in Mobile.   It was not because of Waterman’s globe that I know but because of her ships that I learned that the earth curves gently down before me as I look to the horizon. I know the earth is a ball because I have seen it for myself.

To seem to do nothing

I would wish for every human being the pleasure of seeing the Bay as I have seen it. I would wish for all the joy of seeming to do nothing, but of doing much just by sitting still on the rocks of the jetty that thrusts itself out into the water and by looking. I have watched freighters steam forty miles down the Bay, plowing the green water in a long foaming furrow-wake that flowed out unnoticed until it tangled with the bottom in the shallows and stood up to crash in a curling surf. I have watched the ships sail from the docks at the head of the Bay to the edge of the world underway to foreign ports with accented names. There, painted on the southern line drawn between sky and water, the ships—I have observed—slowly descended. First the hull sank low, then the superstructure, then the smoke stack, until, at last, only a plume of smoke trailed up like an arrow marking where she went over the edge.

Ships rise from over the horizon

And watching that horizon intently I have seen smoke, just a wisp, pull up the barrels of chimneys from out the Gulf beyond Dauphin Island and Gulf Shores, chimneys I knew that were marked with a “W.” Then a hull would emerge with its red water line rising in turn from the Gulf. No dragons lay beyond the joint of the circle of green and the bowl of blue. Climbing a pine tree I could see a little farther over the curve of the earth and farther out to sea. I could see a little more than those who were content to stand on the ground. Joining them, I drew in the sand what my eye saw: a boy looking to the edge of sight, the corner of the sky. I imagined that the gulls could see a grander circle from their great heights than the small world of a fiddler crab on the beach. So on a calm day I plunged into the Bay’s quiet water sinking down until my eyes barely cleared the surface, a centimeter above the water line. There I saw it! The horizon zoomed in to only a thousand yards away. The beach across the Bay slipped out of view. Only the pine-covered tops of the bluffs of Fairhope peaked above the water. Mon Louis beyond Dog River sank and rose with me as I alternately sat or stood in the water. I saw the earth curving down before me obscuring what lay beyond my line of sight. A great exhilaration flowed over me like the water that dripped from my nose. I could see for myself the pregnant swell of the earth’s belly.

Feeling the pull of the Sun and moon

I went again and again to the jetty. I always found it faithful. I studied hard at the school of seeing. One day I saw a long, low heap of water pile up. The quarter moon stood high in the pale blue sky, gray and ghostly. I saw the tide coming. I had seen the tidal flow before, swirling around the pilings at the mouth of Dog River. I had seen the boats float higher and higher on each swell. I had seen the tide stall the lazy flow of the river and send salt water upstream and into the creeks and sloughs and bogs, all the way up to the swamp puddle that lay behind my house. The combined pull of the moon and the sun reached across thousands of miles of emptiness to draw up the drops of water, at least a little. And the water’s surface tracked the sun and moon as the earth turned beneath them. Then I realized that the moon was pulling on me, too, lifting a fraction of my weight from me. Like invisible threads joining the dust of the moon and flaming gas of the sun to the cells of my body, gravity tugged and pulled at me. And I pulled back. The moon then adjusted its orbit infinitesimally because of my trek to the beach. I left the beach feeling the earth pull my bare feet to it in a weighty embrace. And my toes tugged back boyishly on the great green ball on which I walked and ran and sat, watching. And when the wizards of the flat earth tried to tangle my thoughts with purloined and perverted theories of light and gravity to stand arguments on their heads, I simply shook mine. The earth is round, I say, rounder than our imagination. This I know, for I have seen it. You have my word on it.

But never mind . . . go see for yourself.

Earthrise: a view of the earth from the moon NASA photo

Earthrise: a view of the earth from the moon NASA photo

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Crucifix at Nuremberg Cathedral Photo by Sam Matteson 1978

Crucifix at Nuremberg Cathedral    Photo by Sam Matteson 1978

Easter is coming. I can tell from the Cadbury Bunny’s sudden appearance in TV ads. In addition to the mythical egg-laying leporid, we can look forward in a few days to hidden colored eggs, abundant candy and new spring outfits. The time is awash in pastel hopes for sunshine and the promise of warm days. Easter-tide is a sweet-toothed springtime celebration of the cyclical nature of the rebirth of the world after the cruel winter that seems more like a fairy tale than history.

Perhaps, lost in all the fun is a horrific historical event. Friday, next, April 3, 2015 Anno Domini, is “Good” Friday. A day when Christians of the western tradition (Roman Catholics and Protestants, for example) will observe the anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus called the Christ. Those of the eastern tradition (Eastern or Greek Orthodox for example) will wait a week more, due to a difference of opinion that dates back centuries about fixing the annual celebration of Easter relative to the full moon in spring. Many may assume that with all this calendric shuffling, we cannot know when the first Good Friday or Easter happened. Indeed, some even assume that the holiday is merely a cultural relic from a more pious era that has no relevance to our time or any basis in a real event that happened on a particular day in history.

Was Jesus an Actual Historical Person?

There are a few who might claim that the date of the crucifixion is moot because they are skeptical of even the reality of a historical person called Jesus (Yeshuah in Hebrew, a variant of the first century common name that has also come into English as “Joshua”) of Nazareth, called the Messiah (Meshiach in Hebrew) or the Christ (Christos in Greek). I found both fascinating and accessible an article written by Lawrence Mykytiuk in Biblical Archaeology Review1 dealing with extra-Biblical historical evidence for the existence of this remarkable person.

Mykytuik concludes that there is ample secular textual evidence to persuade most scholars that there was indeed a Jesus called the Christ, who lived in the Roman province of Judea in the days of Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, and was executed on a Friday that was also the eve of the Jewish Passover festival. Jesus suffered crucifixion because he was a threat to the Pax Romana, as was customary in such cases. This travesty of justice was perpetrated by Pontius Pilate, who was governor or, more precisely, prefect of Judea in the period 26-36 AD. These details are so familiar to those who have heard the story repeatedly that we risk the events seeming to be folk lore set adrift from the grim realities.

Eyewitnesses to History

History has witnessed other violent deaths of public figures. I will never forget another Friday, November 22, 1963, where I was and what I felt. That was 52 years ago. Nevertheless, many are alive today that were there in Dealy Plaza in Dallas to witness the event. I was in my algebra class, three states away, but I experienced it too. The public address system crackled to life with my high school Principal’s voice: “My apologies teachers, we interrupt your class for this important announcement.” Then we heard Walter Cronkite’s familiar and trusted voice, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: ‘President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.’ (a pause as he glanced up at clock) 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”

The very public death of our president recalled a similar incident that occurred 150 years ago this month. On April 14, 1865, just days after the end of the great American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was shot in the very public venue of Ford’s Theater by the well-known actor, John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln died the following morning. We know these facts because of eye witness accounts. Yet, this event seems already so ancient and out of touch. Can we know anything with reliability? Indeed we can. In fact, the last witness to the terrifying event, Samuel J. Seymour, himself died April 12, 1956, when I was nine2. Even a century and a half after the events there are individuals of my generation who could have chatted with living witnesses.

But what of an event that is reported to have occurred almost two millennia ago? We have treasured documents that purport to share eyewitness testimony. One history written in the Greek language of the day begins “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses [emphasis added] and ministers of the word have delivered them to us.” (Luke 1:1) The work, called the Gospel According to Luke, is traditionally ascribed to Luke, the companion of the Apostle Paul, although the document itself does not identify directly its author. Scholarly opinion variously dates the writing of this document to between 80-90 AD or 90-110 AD, that is, as early as fifty years or as late as eighty years from the events it details. What is impressive to me is the claim of reporting eyewitness testimony of the events.

This document and its volume two, The Acts of the Apostles, that are attributed to and generally agreed to be by the same hand, provide wonderful insight and detail that can help fix the chronology of the final days of the remarkable individual called Jesus Christ. According to the author of the gospel, whom we will call without further apology “Luke,” Jesus began his ministry in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea . . . .” (Luke 3:1) Scholars have variously understood the 15th year of Tiberius to be 26 A.D. (assuming one counts from Tiberius’ regency while Augustus was in semi-retirement) or 28-29 A.D. (assuming one counts from the Caesar’s death on August 19, 14 A.D.). Depending on how one interprets the gospels Jesus’ ministry lasted from one to four years. Thus, the crucifixion of Jesus must have occurred in the time period of from about 27 A.D. to 34 A.D.

Humphreys and Waddington date Crucifixion to 3 April 33 AD

In 1983, I read an article in Nature by Humphreys and Waddington3 that argued very persuasively (to my mind) that the most probable date for Jesus’ crucifixion was April 3, 33 A.D. I subsequently corroborated their calculations myself using an astronomical ephemeris program with up-to-date corrections for changes in the rotation and orbits of the earth-moon system. The authors have revisited the topic both in a festschrift book3 and a decade later, successfully answering all of the credible criticism.4

They argue, in essence, that–on examination of the dates of Passovers that began on Friday evening during the period Pilate was prefect–only two dates emerge as calendrically possible: 7 April 30 A.D. and 3 April 33 A.D. Citing much historical evidence, they declare that the later date is significantly more likely than the earlier.

Moreover, it is especially moving that Good Friday 2015 also occurs on April 3 and that a very special celestial event will reoccur that recalls one of 33 A.D. I refer to what Peter alluded to in his Pentecost sermon, fifty days after that first Easter, in which he quoted the prophet Joel:

“In those days I will pour out my Spirit . . . I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood . . . . Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. . . .This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” (Acts 2:19, 20, 22, 32)

Blood Moon April 3, 1996  Photo: Preston Starr

Blood Moon April 3, 1996         Photo: Preston Starr

Thus, Luke reports a “Blood Moon,” that is, a lunar eclipse. Humphreys and Waddington point out that just such a celestial event occurred April 3, 33 A.D. at sunset. This year on April 4, 2015 A.D. the morning of Holy Saturday, just before sunrise (from about 6:00-7:00 am CDT) the moon will be “turned to blood” on the western horizon. If you are an early riser you, too, can witness this celestial reminder (weather permitting) of that fateful day 1982 years ago.

[Please note that contrary to what some have posted on-line, Humphreys and Waddington do not claim the darkness at noon is due to an eclipse. Lunar eclipses do not cause a darkness at noon. It was Thallus the Samaritan, in a first century history now lost, who was quoted and refuted by Julianus Africanus as dismissing the darkness as due to a solar eclipse. As Julianus correctly point out, no solar eclipse is possible at Passover when the moon is full.]

First Century Eyewitnesses Accounts Confirmed by Astroastronomy

I find it noteworthy that a reporter (Luke) of eyewitness testimony recounts a confirmed event (a blood moon) that did, indeed, occur as reported. This is indirect but compelling evidence that Luke shared eyewitness testimony, not folk tales.

For a self-identified calendar-and-history-nerd who loves a good mystery like me, the topic is fascinating. However, the historical debate can obscure the most important point: the gospel is a report of historical events that changed the lives of the people who experienced them and that have continued to impact people who subsequently listened to the news. We are the recipients of that good news story. In John’s gospel we read that Jesus, after his resurrection, said to “doubting” Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

What is more, the Apostle Paul reported

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that we was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, [emphasis added] although some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8)

Thus, if the witnesses are to be believed, Easter is, indeed, a day to celebrate, after all. It is a day to dye eggs, a sign of new life, to revel in the vernal rebirth of the earth, and to put on new bright clothes—in short, to party. We do not celebrate the deaths of Presidents Kennedy or Lincoln. Too many hopes died with them. The good news that Paul delivers to us is echoed in the Easter greeting of the Orthodox tradition: Christos Anesti! Christ is risen! Alithos Anesti! He is risen indeed!

In that historical truth, hope is reborn—reason enough to party large.

References:

  1. Lawrence Mykytiuk in BAR On-line:

http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/did-jesus-exist/

  1. Wikipedia Samuel J. Seymour

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_J._Seymour

  1. J. Humphreys and W.J. Waddington, ‘Dating the Crucifixion’, Nature 306 (1983) 743-6; idem, in Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan, J. Vardaman and E.M. Yamauchi (eds.), (Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns 1989) 172-81.
  2. Humphreys and Waddington Tyndal Bulletin

http://www.tyndalehouse.com/tynbul/library/TynBull_1992_43_2_06_Humphreys_DateChristsCrucifixion.pdf

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