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Misreading Romans for immoral purposes: 6-19-18

To make a specific point about biblical literacy, today I need to go back to something that happened last week and that was widely reported.

Romans-13Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in defense of the Trump administration policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S. border, cited chapter 13 of the New Testament book of Romans, written by the Apostle Paul.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

Over the years, many people have misread Paul in exactly that way. Romans 13 has been used by all kinds of terrible leaders to justify their actions, as if they've been deputized by God.

This misreading occurs because, once again, people yank Paul out of his First Century Jewish context and assume that he's writing to people now about contemporary situations.

In fact, the Apostle Paul is not addressing the modern world in his letter to the Romans at all. Rather, he is addressing Christ-following non-Jews at the time who have become part of Jewish society around the temple(s) in Rome. And he is not telling those non-Jews to obey the brutal Roman government (that's about the last thing he'd be likely to do). Rather, he's telling them to obey the rules of the temple and its leaders because those non-Jews are guests there. Be good guests, he's saying. In that way, perhaps you can have helpful conversations with Jews there about why you believe Jesus is the Messiah and that the so-called age to come has dawned with Jesus' coming.

To turn Romans into a sermon about obeying any current civil government is a serious misreading of the epistle.

One major source for my understanding of this matter is the Pauline scholar Mark D. Nanos, whose new book, Reading Romans within Judaism, is about to be published. Nanos also wrote the introduction and commentary notes for Romans in the Jewish Annotated New Testament.

As Nanos writes in his introductory notes in the last book I just mentioned, the non-Jews to whom Paul was writing "needed to understand how they should live as well as how they should interact with the Jewish community" in Rome. So Paul is going to explain that to them.

Thus, in chapter 13, he tells them to obey the rules and leaders of the Jewish community with which they are associated in Rome.

"The traditional view of this chapter," Nanos writes, "is that it exhorts the community to obey or subject themselves to the empire or state. . .(O)ne of the ways that these Gentiles are instructed to live respectfully toward Jews is to accept the authority of the Jewish communal leaders. This includes payment of the Temple tax for those who would claim full membership in Israel, such as these Gentile Christ-followers do."

Later Nanos concludes this: "It is not likely that Paul means to say that the rulers of the Roman Empire were just or the Empire was God's servant."

So if Nanos is right -- and I'm persuaded that he is -- then Sessions is wrong to cite Romans 13 as a warrant for the immoral actions the American government is taking to preserve and protect law and order as ordained by God.

In fact, claiming biblical justification for immoral actions is itself immoral.

My friend David May, who teaches at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, did this blog post a few years ago making some of these same points and crediting Nanos, too.

(By the way, a recent column I did about Nanos' work can be found here.)

* * *

POINTING THE FINGER OF BLAME AT CONGRESS

RNS blogger Jacob Lupfer says ultimately Congress is to blame for our current immigration crisis. He writes: "We may seem to be near a breaking point. Rip a baby from its mother’s arms, and few preachers will stay silent. But the conservative Christians in Congress stopped listening a long time ago."


Unresolved fear drove evangelicals to Trump: 6-18-18

One of the major mysteries of the 2016 presidential election is why 81 percent of white evangelicals abandoned almost everything they have stood for in terms of morality and voted for Donald Trump.

Believe-meMy last effort to offer light on this darkness can be found here.

One of the things that has been missing from nearly all of these explanations and analyses has been a deep sense of the history of evangelical Christians in the U.S., starting at or even before the official birth of our nation. John Fea, who teaches American history at Messiah College and who describes himself as an evangelical, has rectified that in his new and enlightening book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. The official publication date is next week, but it can be pre-ordered now.

Fea is aghast and embarrassed by the choice so many of his fellow evangelicals made in the election. But he finds precedents in history for the way they responded not to hope but to fear. And, he asserts, it was fear and nostalgia for an imagined past that never existed that helped to move them into Trump's camp. Indeed, Fea writes, "it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear."

"Prior to his decision to run for office," Fea writes of Trump, "very few Americans, including American evangelicals, were even aware that he was anything but a profane man -- a playboy and adulterer who worshiped not at the throne of God but at the throne of Mammon. . .This election, while certainly unique and unprecedented in American history, is also the latest manifestation of a long-standing evangelical approach to public life. This political playbook was written in the 1970s and drew heavily from an even longer history of white evangelical fear."

In the spirit of what theologian Ronald J. Sider wrote in his 2005 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Fea says that evangelicals "have become intellectually lazy, preferring to respond to cultural change by trying to reclaim a world that is rapidly disappearing and has little chance of ever coming back. This backward-looking approach to politics can be seen no more clearly than in the evangelicals' embrace of Trump's campaign slogan, 'Make America Great Again.'"

In the end, Fea asserts, "fear is the political language conservative evangelicals know best."

He then spends a considerable portion of the book describing various periods in American history when fear drove evangelicals, whether it was fear of Catholics, fear of people of other religions and races other than white, fear of the teaching of evolution in public schools, fear of nuclear war (a fear many Americans shared), fear of the growing population of American Muslims and on and on.

When people life in fear, they often seek deliverance from some kind of strongman. Which is the role the blustery, make-it-up-as-you-go, dishonest Trump has played: "The various fears that combined to drive white evangelical Christians into the arms of Donald Trump have deep roots in American history."

Fea contends that the desire by evangelicals for a strong leader to allay their fears is evidence that they aren't taking their faith seriously: "Even the most cursory reading of the Old and New Testament reveals that, ultimately, Christians have nothng to fear. Scripture reminds us that we already have a strong protector in times of need."

Among the most interesting history that Fea recounts has to do with the rise of such evangelical stars as Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, Paula White, Robert Jeffress and others -- the whole story of the so-called Moral Majority and similar movements up to the present. Each one of them played on some fear that was close to the surface of evangelical minds. And it led those evangelicals to make devilish bargains with the Republican Party.

The problem for evangelicals, as Fea notes about Trump, is that "his entire career, and his success as a television star and public figure, was built on vices incompatible with the moral teachings of Christianity. . .The only way to get around Trump's flaws was to somehow Christianize him. Paula White (a Prosperity Gospel preacher who is now a Trump spiritual adviser) claimed that she had led Trump to accept Jesus Christ as his savior. Jerry Falwell Jr. said that Trump's moral life had changed since he had become a born-again Christian. . .The kind of forgiveness and understanding that was never given to Bill Clinton was now available in seemingly endless supply to Donald Trump."

As Fea correctly notes, for evangelicals "character simply didn't matter as much as the opportunity to seize a seat on the Supreme Court."

Kansas City readers will be interested to note that as Fea lists leaders in what is now known as Independent Network Charismatic (INC) Christianity, he lists as one of the INC leaders Mike Bickle of the International House of Prayer in KC. That group has been around for some years now and continues to be theologically controversial in many ways.

As other scholars and political theorists do, Fea wonders what period of our history Trump has in mind when he says he wants America to be great "again." Yes, America has done wonderful things, but does he want us to return to the 1950s when black people couldn't ride in the front of the bus and it was assumed most women were built to stay home and have babies or to the 1960s when our government was lying to us about how many of our young people in the military were dying in Vietnam or the 1970s when our president caused a constitutional crisis and had to resign or, or, or. . .?

Fea contends that a much better model for a legitimate way evangelicals can engage in political matters is to learn from faith leaders in the civil rights movement. They understood American history and "did not use the past as fodder for a national reclamation project. They knew there was little to reclaim. Instead they used the past as a means of moving forward in hope and calling the church and the nation to live up to the principles they were built on. . .Evangelicals can do better than Donald Trump."

What is so painful is knowing how few evangelicals seem to understand that.

* * *

THE PROBLEM IS MORAL BANKRUPTCY

To continue the theme today, two authors of a forthcoming book about the evangelical world have written this piece for the Daily Beast saying that our political troubles today are because of "the moral bankruptcy of the single largest group of American Protestants, white evangelicals." Sounds like a growing consensus.


A global trend in religious practices: 6-16/17-18

Pew-chart

You merely have to look around at almost any worship service of almost any religion in the U.S. to see that people with gray hair often outnumber people under 30.

But a new analysis of studies by the Pew Research Center shows that this is a global trend and, thus, isn't unique to the U.S. (as the Pew graphic above shows).

Using a number of different measures, Pew says religion is less and less important to young adults.

"Lower religious observance among younger adults," Pew reports, "is common around the world, according to a new analysis of Pew Research Center surveys conducted in more than 100 countries and territories over the last decade.

"Although the age gap in religious commitment is larger in some nations than in others, it occurs in many different economic and social contexts – in developing countries as well as advanced industrial economies, in Muslim-majority nations as well as predominantly Christian states, and in societies that are, overall, highly religious as well as those that are comparatively secular."

There are, of course, many theories about why this is so. You can add to this list, no doubt, but I at least will start it:

-- Disgust at hypocrisy. The hypocrisy radar of most young people works quite well. When they see it among people of faith it can be especially damaging.

-- Unbelievable teachings. When young people learn about science and the scientific method in schools but then hear faith leaders claim that Earth is only a few thousand years old, the cognitive dissonance can be severe.

-- Hearing ideas unchanged for centuries that no longer make sense. When women and LGBTQ community members are excluded in various ways, young people walk away, as they should.

-- Worship styles that don't adjust. Sitting in rows and listening to lectures (OK, sermons) and to nothing but pipe organ music just isn't attractive to young people as much today as it once might have been.

Well, as I say, you certainly can add to this list. And when you complete your list, you might want to take it to the leaders of your own faith community, if you have one, and ask what's being done to respond to these reasons. If no one wants to address your concerns, you know you're in the wrong place.

* * *

AND NOW THE PRESBYTERIANS

It's the time of year that Christian denominational bodies hold annual or biennial meetings. The Southern Baptists have been doing just that and now my Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination begins meeting this weekend in St. Louis. The RNS story to which I've linked you reports on hopes delegates (called commissioners) have to find new ways to be church today and revive the denomination. We'll see.


Sid Willens -- he was true religion enfleshed: 6-15-18

The last time I was with my old friend Sidney L. Willens several months back he reminded me that a couple of decades ago when I was writing an occasional piece for a previous version of Missouri Life Magazine, I did a profile of Sid. But it never ran because the magazine folded before it could be published. (The publication now lives again.)

Willens-PopeHe took a kind of perverse credit for having killed the magazine so it wouldn't have to publish a piece about him. And then, of course, he laughed.

Sid died this week at age 91. His obituary, which a friend of mine helped Sid put together in recent months, tells a great deal about his important life and what he contributed to Kansas City. And it does that with Sid's flair.

What it doesn't say, except by indirection, is that this Jewish man who had married a Catholic woman lived the kind of life that all of us would live if we took religious principles seriously.

Sid embodied the Jewish principle of "tikkun olam," which means our job is to repair the world. Sid always looked for what was broken around him, what was unjust, what was unfair. And he did whatever he could to fix all of that. He had a remarkable success rate, too.

I first met Sid not long after I came to The Kansas City Star as a reporter in 1970. I was writing about racial turnover in southeast Kansas City, about race relations, about urban dynamics, about neighborhood deterioration. And Sid was in the midst of all that both as an attorney and writer with lots of projects on his plate. He was, in addition, a resident of a changing neighborhood, given that Sid and his wife Lorraine and children lived just east of Troost at the edge of Waldo.

Sid would call me with various story possibilities about people who were being crushed by this or that system. One of his ideas that I wrote about was for new first-time homeowners to have a maintenance reserve fund so they could afford to repair their roof or replace their furnace and not simply abandon the home or let it get so rundown that it was could not be salvaged. Sid sent copies of that story to hundreds of people over the years to spread the idea. He, of course, had saved it as he had saved almost everything, and he showed it to me again a few months ago.

Yes, Sid was a ham -- a surprising thing for a Jewish man to be, when you think about it in the pun-intended way I tend to look at the world. And as the opening of his obit notes, he didn't mind publicity at all.

But all of that was in the service of others. It was in the interests of being a "mensch," a term Jews often use to mean a human being of integrity and honor.

Willens-bearAnd there was always, with Sid, a little boy inside trying to get out and have some fun, some adventure. Which is why he once successfully (and a little too gleefully, it seemed to me) defended a man arrested for giving a police officer the finger. And it's why he just called up the Vatican one day and asked to speak to the pope to get an audience (he got one) for his wife (as the photo above left of Sid, Lorraine and Pope John Paul II attests).

That little boy inside Sid was, in the end, a man of great probity, a man who will be celebrated Sunday morning by his good friend Rabbi Mark Levin, whose life and values parallel Sid's. (Here, by the way, is the blog entry that Mark wrote about Sid yesterday. As usual, Mark gets it right. And here is a half-hour video about Sid's activist life.)

Several years ago Sid invited my wife and me to dinner at a restaurant on the Plaza. In the course of the meal, he gave us a stuffed bear (pictured at right) that, when you press his palm just right, will sing "Just the Way You Look Tonight." No reason for the gift. He just thought it was fun.

That singing bear has become a favorite of two of our grandchildren, though the two-year-old still is a little frightened of it. But some months back I sent Sid a long-overdue thank-you note for the bear and told him how much fun it has been for our grandchildren.

Nothing could have made Sid happier than to hear that. Well, maybe not nothing. What might make Sid happier would be to hear that each of us is doing things to make little children happy, to make life more just and compassionate for adults, to make sure that our work is in the service of others. Yes. That would make Sid happier.

So let's do that in Sid's honor. And let's have some fun along the way.

* * *

WHO DOESN'T KNOW THIS?

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops says the Trump administration's immigration policy that separates mothers from their children at the border is "immoral." You know we're in a sad time when anyone feels it necessary to point out something so obvious.


Hunting up religion's presence in cities: 6-14-18

CINCINNATI -- While I was here this past weekend for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I had with me a book that I'm reading for review, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, by John Fea. (I'll publish my review here on the blog a bit later.)

Lane-T-SAnd in it I ran across the name of a divinity school in Cincinnati of which I'd never heard -- Lane Theological Seminary. Fea, in describing the many fears that have plagued evangelicals across American history, notes that "Lyman Beecher, a well-known New England Congregationalist minister, became the first president of Lane. . ."

So I started hunting around (first online; later on the ground) and discovered -- first on the Wikipedia entry on Lane to which I've linked you above and then on this Ohio History Connection site -- that Lane was founded in 1830 and operated for 102 years before, finally, being merged into McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

Lane-T-S-2The last buildings occupied by Lane in Cincinnati eventually came down -- the last one in 1956. And in its place, in front of a Cadillac dealer, is a two-sided sign, photos of which you see here, that describes Lane as well as a great debate there over slavery and abolition before the Civil War.

All of which was another reminder to me (and now to you) of how every city in the country bears the marks of the ways in which religion has helped to shape its history -- as well as its present. When I visit cities in which I've previously never spent much time, I love to wander around and look for evidence of exactly that.

One of the other religious sites I visited here was Christ Church (Episcopal) Cathedral (pictured below), where the Rev. Gail Greenwell is dean. She and her husband Jim are good friends of my wife and me. We met them when she served here as rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church at 67th and Nall. In fact, we spent our last night in Cincinnati as guests in Gail's and Jim's downtown home, not far from the cathedral.

That cathedral is huge and, last year, celebrated its 200th anniversary. It's quite an amazing space, from which the congregation does a lot of excellent ministry.

So next time you're in a city you don't know well, wander about and see how threads of religion are woven into the social fabric. Feel free to send me pictures. We both might learning something.

Christ-Cathedral

* * *

STRANGE VISIONS OF GOD

What does God look like? (That's a dumb question, by the way, for many reasons.) Researchers at the University of North Carolina, nonetheless, asked some 550 Christian people that question and found some odd answers. But mostly the people they asked indicated that "God is white, young and clean cut, not unlike someone from an '80s boy band." And let us guess: His name is Rob? Or Stu? Or maybe Ian? Perhaps these Christians don't know that the Bible says God is spirit. And perhaps they don't know that the best Christian answer probably is this: "Whatever Jesus looked like."


How religions sometimes make suicides worse: 6-13-18

The way some religions traditionally have thought about and taught about suicide has not been helpful or redemptive.

SuicideIn the wake of prominent recent suicides by Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, perhaps it's worthwhile to look at whether religion understands mental illness at all or whether it's simply more interested in defining what constitutes sin.

All the great world religions teach us about the sacredness and preciousness of life. To destroy life purposefully violates those teachings. But that is a straight-line answer to an extraordinarily complicated issue.

What those left to deal with life after the suicide of a family member or friend must take into account is almost never whether the person who killed herself elected in some rational way to commit a mortal sin. Rather, what they are forced to wrestle with is the state of mental derangement that led to the decision to commit suicide.

Still, religion has had its say about suicide over the years.

Here, for instance, is an explanation of why the Catholic Church traditionally has considered suicide a sin. And here is an explanation from Bible.org, which speaks to and for evangelical and conservative Christians, about why suicide is a sin but not an unforgivable one. Finally, here is Wikipedia's collection of religious views on suicide from various traditions.

What's so striking to me about a lot of these faith-based views is how little attention is paid to mental illness and to the reality that no one -- absolutely no one -- can get inside the head of someone who has committed suicide, even if that person has left a detailed note.

When I was growing up, the mother of a good friend tried once and failed to commit suicide. Within a year or so she tried again and succeeded. In between attempts I was in her presence several times and could only look at her head and try to imagine what was going on in there. I was a teen-ager at the time and I found no answers that were satisfying.

When she succeeded in killing herself, she left some odd requests. One was that she be allowed to have her casketed body left in our church sanctuary alone overnight. Another was that recordings of Tennessee Ernie Ford singing hymns be played before her funeral began as people gathered.

From just those two hints almost anyone could tell that something wasn't right in her mind. She clearly suffered some kind of mental strain that caused her to take her life to stop whatever pain was already killing her.

My hope is that faith communities today are learning how to approach questions of suicide in ways that are understanding and are healing for those left behind. Simply to label suicide a sin seems like an additional cruelty piled onto one of life's most painful times.

The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have provided an opportunity for faith communities to have an in-depth discussion about sin and mental illness -- and whether a religion's theology about that is in any way helpful.

* * *

BAPTIST SCANDALS ARE MANY BUT NOT UNIQUE

As delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting gather in Dallas, the large denomination is operating under several clouds of disheartening scandal, as this CNN report notes. In fact, the number and salaciousness of scandals in religion generally are appalling and no doubt contribute to the growing number of people who want nothing to do with institutional faith.

* * *

P.S.: It will take some time to digest the U.S.-North Korea summit and what it might mean for peace, but, for now, if you want to read the text of the agreement signed by President Trump and Kim Jong Un, it's here.


Finding faith news in my absence: 6-12-18

CINCINNATI -- While I'm gone a few days to attend the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' annual conference here, I'm going to give you a couple of sources from which to get updates about religious news.

NewspapersThe first is Religion News Service. This excellent group of journalists provides coverage of lots of religious matters. It's a good place to keep up. You can even support RNS with a donation.

Another good source of news and analysis in the world of faith is the Pew Research Center. Lots of studies worth reading can be found there, too.

While I'm gone I also invite you to explore the various essays I have here on the blog under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. And, of course, if you've missed any postings over the last 13-plus years I've been writing this blog, now's your time to go to the archives section on the right side of this page and catch up. 

Miss me. See you back here on Wednesday, God willing.

By the way, many of you know that if you friend me on Facebook, a link to my daily blog will show up in your newsfeed.

(We got home last evening and I have some things to share with you this coming week from our trip, so stay tuned and tell your friends to "like" my blog or ask them to friend me so, like you, they get my blog in their daily FB news feed.)


Finding faith news while I'm gone: 6-11-18

CINCINNATI -- While I'm gone a few days to attend the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' annual conference here, I'm going to give you a couple of sources from which to get updates about religious news.

NewspapersThe first is Religion News Service. This excellent group of journalists provides coverage of lots of religious matters. It's a good place to keep up. You can even support RNS with a donation.

Another good source of news and analysis in the world of faith is the Pew Research Center. Lots of studies worth reading can be found there, too.

While I'm gone I also invite you to explore the various essays I have here on the blog under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. And, of course, if you've missed any postings over the last 13-plus years I've been writing this blog, now's your time to go to the archives section on the right side of this page and catch up. (There may be a test.)

Miss me. See you back here on Wednesday, God willing.

By the way, many of you know that if you friend me on Facebook, a link to my daily blog will show up in your newsfeed.


When political leaders lose their legitimacy: 6-9/10-18

Eric Greitens has been gone from the office of governor of Missouri for just over a week now. And there have been lots of analyses done about the politics of what happened and the ins and outs of the various scandals that finally caused him to resign.

Moral_CompassBut I think it's worth asking a broader moral question that perhaps can shed some light not just on political leadership but on leadership of all kinds, including that found among faith communities. The question is this:

What gives leaders legitimacy and how can they lose it?

First, of course, legitimacy comes with the selection process. In the case of Greitens, he was properly elected and duly inaugurated. The same goes for Donald Trump, even though he lost the national popular vote. Nonetheless, the Electoral College rules are the rules by which the nation plays, which means Trump got to occupy the Oval Office while Hillary Clinton got to go home (where she seems not to stay much).

But there is also a moral legitimacy to consider. This is harder to assess and more debatable, but it's something real nonetheless. When the news broke that Eric Greitens had had a smarmy extra-marital affair in which ugly details were revealed, his moral legitimacy suffered serious damage. When that was coupled with other allegations of wrong-doing and his known disregard for the necessary rules of civil relations with legislators, there was, in the end, no moral ground left for him to occupy.

Many might argue -- and I would be among them -- that President Trump also has pretty much run out of moral ground on which to stand. His inability or unwillingness to speak truthfully about almost any subject has kneecapped him, along with what well may be his traitorous behavior in the effort by Russia to influence our elections.

In the 1970s, we saw not just the political calculus but also the moral calculus that led, finally, to the resignation of Richard M. Nixon as a result of the sinful, deceitful way he handled the Watergate scandal. (Google it, kids.) So we know there can be a tipping point that can push a politician without a moral compass out of power.

That determination is not solely a legal one, not one in which the primary question is whether a politician broke this or that particular law. Rather, it is a question of trust, of morals, ethics. It is the question often asked of Nixon: Would you buy a used car from that man?

There's a persuasive case to be made that with both Greitens and Trump there was enough evidence before the election to know that moral failure was a distinct possibility, as, of course, it also would have been for Hillary Clinton. But we voters struggle with our own moral failings and thus are more likely to be forgiving of such evidence and hopeful that all will be well. We should know by now that such an approach is naive and dangerous.

No, we can't elect sinless people, can't elect saints. But we can pay better attention to the warning signs that a ruler's legitimacy is likely to be fatally compromised once in office. And we can keep our moral standards high enough so that we recognize when that happens.

* * *

CINCINNATI -- While I'm here through the weekend for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I won't be adding the usual second item here to the blog each day. Normal blogging will return after I get back to Kansas City in a few days.


A sad date on the Islamic calendar: 6-8-18

The way that humans have constructed and lived by calendars has changed several times over the centuries, though now nearly all the world agrees that today is June 8, 2018, even if there are religious calendars, such as in Judaism and Islam, that would give a different name to this date.

IslamBut despite the various changes in how we keep track of the Earth's annual movement around the sun, we can -- and do -- overlay today's calendar on the past to determine the timing of certain historical events. And sometimes when it comes to matters of religion, dating matters.

For instance, many sources report that the Prophet Muhammad died in Medina on this date in the year 632, either A.D. or C.E, depending on whether you want to use Christian or academic terminology. Muhammad was believed to be about 63 years old at the time of his death.

Does it matter whether he died on June 8 or, say, Sept. 20? In terms of what Islam teaches, its core tenets, no. What matters is that he was a real human being who lived in a particular place at a particular time.

Much the same can be said of Jesus of Nazareth.

Christians have long celebrated his birth on Dec. 25, though there really is no biblical or other historical evidence to verify that date. Again, what matters is that he was a real human being in real history and did and said certain things.

Well, wait. Let me add a bit of information about that Dec. 25 date from Alfred Edersheim, author of The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, published in the 1880s. Edersheim takes great pains to argue for the accuracy of that date in a long footnote:

"There is no adequate reason for questioning the historical accuracy of this date. The objections generally made rest on grounds which seem to me historically untenable. The subject has been fully discussed in an article by Cassel in Herzog's Real. Ency. xvii. pp. 588-594. But a curious piece of evidence comes to us from a Jewish source. In addition to the Megillath Taanith (ed. Warsh. p. 20 a), the 9th Tebheth is marked as a fast day, and, it is added, that the reason for this is not stated. Now, Jewish chronologists have fixed on that day as that of Christ's birth, and it is remarkable that, between the years 500 and 816 A.D. the 25th of December fell no less than twelve times on the 9th Tebheth. If the 9th Tebheth, or 25th December, was regarded as the birthday of Christ, we can understand the concealment about it."

Or not.

See what historians, theologians and others sometimes go through to make an argument?

There are, of course, religious traditions that grow out of particular historical figures and some, such as Hinduism, where that is much less important than the teachings and practices of the faith.

In any case, just be aware that you may run into Muslims today who will be commemorating the death of their prophet. And now you won't be ignorant of what's in their hearts.

* * *

CINCINNATI -- While I'm here through the weekend for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I won't be adding the usual second item here to the blog each day. Normal blogging will return after I get back to Kansas City next week.

* * *

P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.