Book Review of “The Triumph of Christianity” by Bart D. Ehrman, a History of Early Development of Christianity

Jesus died around 30 CE., at which time he had only a handful of followers, all of whom considered themselves to be Jews. But by the late third century, Christianity had split off from Judaism, and attracted enough followers that the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, felt it threatened the stability of the state and vigorously persecuted it. Despite the persecutions, by 313, it had grown sufficiently powerful and significant that the new Emperor (Constantine) even converted to Christianity himself. He then issued the Edict of Milan, which granted official tolerance to Christianity. And in 380, Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, making it the only authorized religion in the Empire. How could the religion have grown so fast?

Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, attempts to answer that question in The Triumph of Christianity.

Ehrman points out that the Romans were generally very tolerant of all religions. When new peoples entered the empire (usually by conquest) the Romans simply added and adopted the gods of the new people to their pantheon (with a lower case ‘p’). In fact, they did not even have a word for “pagan,” since virtually everyone in the empire recognized some or all of the Roman gods. The Romans tolerated the Jews, who worshipped only one god, probably because the Jews did not proselytize.

But the Christians were different. They proselytized vigorously. Moreover, they were exclusive in that they taught that the worship of gods other than their own was sinful. There was no room for other gods in their society. Each new convert to Christianity reduced the number of believers in the traditional Roman deities.

Ehrman argues cogently that Saul of Tarsus, better known as Saint Paul, was the most important convert in history. Although a Jew by birth, Paul fundamentally changed early Christianity from an inward-looking Jewish cult to a cosmopolitan, outward-looking, proselytizing organization.

Conversion of St. Paul, Michaelangelo, Sistine Chapel

What arguments did the early Christians use to convert others? To the Jews, the Christians asserted that Jesus fulfilled Jewish prophesies of a Messiah. This argument required a rather radical reinterpretation of those prophesies since most Jews expected the Messiah to create a formidable Jewish earthly kingdom. The argument had limited success.

To the pagans, the Christians claimed that Jesus worked many miracles. Although few if any Christians had actually witnessed the miracles, many had heard about them and repeated the tales with great conviction.

Ehrman also notes that Christianity as a community resource was very attractive to Roman pagans: it emphasized the church as an accepting family that would care for all of its members; it welcomed women; and as a bonus, guaranteed life after death.

Finally, the Christians in essence threatened nonbelievers with the prospect of eternal damnation and hellfire. That argument was strong enough to convince even the brilliant philosopher, mathematician, and gambler Blaise Pascal (albeit many centuries later) that it paid to hedge one’s bets and practice Christianity.

The actual growth rate of Christianity was not as staggering as it may first appear. Ehrman shows that the church had to grow by only about 3% per year to reach 10% of the population – 2.5 million people – by the year 300. By 380, it had reached majority status.

Emperor Constantine I

The second most important convert of all time after Paul was probably Emperor Constantine I. Although many historians have argued that he may have feigned his conversion, Ehrman argues that it was genuine. He had little to gain politically from converting since Christianity was a distinct minority at the time. Moreover, he took an active part in shaping Christian doctrine, calling for the historic Council of Nicaea in 325 to settle various theological issues. His conversion was especially significant not only because of the example he provided, but since all of his successors (except Julian, who ruled only from 361 to 363) espoused Christianity as well.

The story of the first two centuries of Christianity is open to a lot of speculation because the cult was too small to attract the attention of contemporary secular historians. The accounts in the apocryphal gospels are too fantastic to merit credibility. Even the canonical gospels are hard for nonbelievers to accept. Thus it is important for serious modern historians like Ehrman to piece together and interpret what is actually known about that time.

Evaluation: As usual, Ehrman doesn’t break any new ground, but repackages what is already known into a non-academic, reader-friendly format. His subject matter happens to be endlessly fascinating and consequential, which also helps.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2018

November 20, 1938 – Influential Catholic Priest, Father Charles Coughlin, Blames Jews for Nazi Violence Against Them

Charles Edward Coughlin (October 25, 1891 – October 27, 1979) was a Canadian-American Roman Catholic priest serving in the United States near Detroit, Michigan. One of the first political leaders to use radio to reach a mass audience, he was known throughout the country as Father Coughlin. During the 1930s, an estimated 30 million listeners tuned to his weekly broadcasts. The Holocaust Museum history of Coughlin reports that a new post office was constructed in his Michigan town just to process the letters that he received each week—80,000 on average. He also produced a journal, Social Justice, that eventually reached one million subscribers.

Coughlin was antisemitic, anti-Communist, pro-fascist, and isolationist.

A Photo of Charles Coughlin by Hamilton Spectator, circa 1938.

Coughlin attacked Jews explicitly in his broadcasts, in particular after Kristallnacht (or “Night of Broken Glass”) on November 10, 1938. This was the name for the coordinated terror against Jews all over Nazi-controlled areas. The brutal action was characterized by burning, looting, and murder.

Coughlin defended the state-sponsored violence of the Nazi regime, arguing that Kristallnacht was justified as retaliation for Jewish persecution of Christians. He explained to his listeners on this day in history, November 20, 1938, that the “communistic government of Russia,” “the Lenins and Trotskys,…atheistic Jews and Gentiles” had murdered more than 20 million Christians and had stolen “40 billion [dollars]…of Christian property.”

Coughlin also began to promote fascist dictatorship and authoritarian government as the only cure to the ills of democracy and capitalism. He increasingly attacked President Franklin Roosevelt’s policies, which probably was what ultimately led to his demise.

The Roosevelt administration decided that, because the radio spectrum was a “limited national resource” and regulated as a publicly owned commons, broadcasting was not afforded full protections under the First Amendment. In October 1939, the Code Committee of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) enacted new limitations on the sale of radio time to ‘spokesmen of controversial public issues.’ Manuscripts now had to be submitted in advance, and radio stations were threatened with the loss of licenses if they failed to comply. As a result, on September 23, 1940, Coughlin announced in “Social Justice” that he had been forced from the air.

In addition, the U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle met with banker Leo Crowley, a Roosevelt political appointee and friend of Bishop Edward Aloysius Mooney of Detroit. Crowley relayed Biddle’s message to Mooney that the government was willing to “deal with Coughlin in a restrained manner if he [Mooney] would order Coughlin to cease his public activities.” Bishop Mooney complied, ordering Coughlin to stop his political activities and to confine himself to his duties as a parish priest, warning of potentially removing his priestly faculties if he refused. Although forced to end his public career, Coughlin served as parish pastor until retiring in 1966.

April 22, 1864 – Congress Passed an Act Allowing “In God We Trust” to be Engraved on U.S. Coins

As a Treasury Department website reports, during the Civil War, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received many appeals from devout persons throughout the country to “recognize the Deity on United States coins.” As one petitioner argued, “You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?”

Heaven forfend!

As a result, in a letter dated November 20, 1861, Secretary Chase instructed James Pollock, Director of the Mint at Philadelphia, to prepare a motto:

Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.

You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.”

In December 1863, the Director of the Mint submitted designs for new one-cent coin, two-cent coin, and three-cent coin to Secretary Chase for approval. He proposed that upon the designs either OUR COUNTRY; OUR GOD or GOD, OUR TRUST should appear as a motto on the coins. In a letter to the Mint Director on December 9, 1863, Secretary Chase responded that he thought the words should read “IN GOD WE TRUST.”

Congress passed legislation allowing for the change on this day in history.

“IN GOD WE TRUST” first appeared on the 1864 two-cent coin.

You can read the text of the act here.

Later, Congress passed additional coinage acts to expand the coverage of the first.

December 24 – Birth of Jesus & Review of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan

Zealot by Reza Aslan takes us through the history of early Christianity and the change from Judaism as a source of law to a new philosophy largely interpreted by the former Pharisee (an ancient Jewish sect) later known as St. Paul.

This book has been very controversial largely because of a rather ill-conceived and poorly conducted interview on Fox News that went viral on the Web. In that segment, the interviewer, who clearly had not read the book, and didn’t have any interest in the book’s contents, only wanted to indict Aslan for writing about Jesus when he is a Muslim. He had to point out repeatedly that he is a scholar and that his religious orientation should be irrelevant. The content of his work was not addressed. Nevertheless, all the attention propelled the book to the best-seller list.


I am happy to address the content, which is quite good. Aslan doesn’t break any new ground, but he presents the early history before and after the start of the “Common Era” in an entertaining and accessible way.

Aslan reviews some of the prophecies that the story of Jesus was expected to validate. He then goes through the gospels and points out the contradictions, historical inaccuracies and fact-massaging that were clearly intended to ensure that Jesus would fit the description of the Messiah predicted by the Old Testament.

Aslan also explains some of the ways in which the stories told in the gospels would have been understood differently by the people at that time from the way we interpret them now according to our modern sensibilities.

Importantly, Aslan gives a brief accounting of some of the other would-be messiahs at that time in Jerusalem who were also claiming to be The King of the Jews or The Savior of the Jews or The Messiah. They were all beheaded or crucified. So why did the story of Jesus prevail? Aslan spends the remainder of the book telling us how and why that happened.

Evaluation: This is an informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking book. The information Aslan imparts is extremely valuable for those who have not read any early Christian history. The ground he covers has been plowed often before, but usually in a more inaccessible way. This is a history of Jesus for the people, and one that is thoroughly subscribed to by historians (if not theologians). Aslan does an excellent job of presenting it, in my opinion.

I listened to this book in audio form, and it was read by the author. I thought he was a great choice for a narrator, because he loaded his arguments with passion and conviction.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published unabridged on 7 compact discs by Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013

Review of “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch

So many books have been called “magisterial” that the impact of the word has been diluted. Thus I fear it will not suffice to convey what a monumental work MacCulloch has produced. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years covers the story of Christianity with (pretty much) all the variations, heresies, and twists and turns from its origins in Judaism, to the history of the early Christian Church, through the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counterreformation, and up to the present day. And it does so with sympathy and wit. I must warn the casual reader that it is over one thousand pages long, so be prepared to spend a lot of time with Professor MacCulloch.


The revelations contained in MacCulloch’s account are too numerous and complex to summarize. Instead, I will just note a few of the author’s more interesting observations.

If Jesus ever wrote anything, it did not survive in the historical record. Moreover, there appear to be no contemporaneous written mentions of Jesus. The gospels, both canonical and apocryphal, as the well as two references to him by secular historians, were written at least a generation after his death. The four canonical gospels themselves appear to have been written by early followers who had agendas that differed from one another’s. Much of MacCulloch’s history describes the efforts of various individuals or groups to control the story and the meaning of Christ’s life that would be included in the official canon. (The earliest surviving complete list of books that we would recognize as the New Testament comes as late as 367 C.E.)

Portrait of John the Evangelist from the Book of Mulling, Dublin, Trinity College Library.

Portrait of John the Evangelist from the Book of Mulling, Dublin, Trinity College Library.

The author notes the contradictions in the alternate stories of the birth of Jesus found in Mathew and Luke [Mark and John are silent on that issue]. He summarizes, “We must conclude that beside the likelihood that Christmas did not happen at Christmas, it did not happen in Bethlehem.”

Early Christians (most of whom were converted Jews) did not want to be enemies of the Roman Empire, so they played down the role of Roman authorities in the execution of Jesus, preferring to shift the blame to Jews who did not convert.

As for the Resurrection, the central event of Christianity, MacCulloch calls it “not a matter which historians can authenticate; it is a different sort of truth, or statement about truth. It is the most troubling, difficult affirmation in Christianity….”

The problem of biblical interpretation is a theme that runs through the entire history of Christianity. Origen, an early Christian theologian, asks, “who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, planted a paradise eastward in Eden, and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life, of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life?” MacCulloch writes, “Origen might be saddened to find that seventeen hundred years later, millions of Christians are that silly.”

Origen Adamantius

Origen Adamantius

MacCulloch treats Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism equally and dispassionately. He seldom loses sight of his role as historian rather than apologist or debunker. Occasionally, however, his sense of irony cannot be contained, as when he describes the appearances of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes shortly after Pope Pius IX had used his infallible authority to define and promulgate the doctrine that Mary had been conceived without original sin. Noting that the many appearances of Mary in the nineteenth century were surrounded by fierce controversies, he observed:

Our Lady showed her approval of the Pope’s action by appearing at Lourdes in the French Pyrenees only four years after the Definition, announcing . . . with a fine disregard for logical categories, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception….’”

Over the next few months, it was said that those who questioned Our Lady “found themselves troubled by poltergeist-like phenomena and specifically directed storms….[or] acute diarrhoea. These aspects…zestfully narrated by locals at the time, have subsequently been edited out of the shrine’s official narratives; Our Lady has become a much better behaved Virgin.”

Artistic rendition of the first appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858 to 14-year-old Marie Bernade at Lourdes

Artistic rendition of the first appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858 to 14-year-old Marie Bernade at Lourdes

The role of the mother of Jesus has been a source of contention between the various strands of Christianity. Without explicitly taking sides, the Protestant MacCulloch notes that a proclamation of Mary’s perpetual virginity has caused devout Catholic commentators to appear clumsy in handling “clear references in the biblical text to Jesus’s brothers and sisters, who were certainly not conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

MacCulloch writes cogently and non-judgmentally about the millennium-long struggle for pre-eminence between pope and emperor for control of the Church.

MacCulloch’s devotes only two pages to the role of religion in the founding of the American Republic, but those pages should be required reading for candidates for national office. He notes that at the time of the American Revolution, only around 10% of the American population were formal Church members. Many of America’s founding fathers were deists, creatures of the Enlightenment rather than practicing Christians. Thomas Jefferson “deeply distrusted organized religion and spoke of the Trinity as ‘abracadabra…hocus-pocus…a deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign to Christianity as is that of Mahomet.’” Washington never received Holy Communion, and was inclined in discourse to refer to providence or destiny rather than to God.

MacCulloch summarized the influence of religion among the founding fathers as follows:

What this revolutionary elite achieved amid a sea of competing Christianities, many of which were highly uncongenial to them, was to make religion a private affair in the eyes of the new American federal government. The constitution which they created made no mention of God or Christianity (apart from the date by ‘the Year of our Lord’). That was without precedent in Christian polities of that time, and with equal disregard for tradition…the Great seal of the United States of America bore no Christian symbol but rather the Eye of Providence, which if it recalled anything recalled Freemasonry….The motto ‘In God We Trust’ only first appeared on an American coin amid civil war in 1864, a very different era, and it was 1957 before it featured on any paper currency….Famously, Thomas Jefferson wrote as president…that the First Amendment…had created a ‘wall of separation between Church and State.’”

Evaluation: This book is truly comprehensive in scope. Any review simply cannot touch upon all the issues covered in the book without being absurdly long. MacCulloch is meticulous in referring to, analyzing, and putting into historical perspective just about every known variety of Christianity: Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Mormons, several varieties of Orthodox practice, Coptics, Arians, Pentecostals, and a host of lesser known offshoots and heresies. All get their due. Even if you don’t (yet) know the difference between a Miaphysite and a Chalcedonian Christian, this book contains a great deal to learn and ponder.

Rating: 5/5

Note: Maps and pictures are included with the text.

Published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., 2010

December 16, 1884 – New Priest in Massachusetts Locked Out of Church For the Crime of Being Irish

Fall River, Massachusetts, approximately 50 miles south of Boston, was a leading textile manufacturing center in the 19th century. Many French Canadians came to the area to work, which caused tensions with the English Protestants and the Irish Catholics already battling for political hegemony and workforce dominance.

David Vermette, writing in Smithsonian Magazine, avers that the Canadians formed cultural archipelagos, “outposts of Québec scattered throughout the Northeast in densely populated pockets.” By 1900, he notes, one-tenth of New Englanders spoke French. And in the region’s many cotton mills, French Canadians made up 44 percent of the workforce—24 percent nationally—at a time when cotton remained a dominant industry.

Mass Moments, the daily almanac of Massachusetts history, reports that the Quebequois who came to Fall River had no experience with factory work, and “their poverty gave them little choice but to accept lower wages than those paid to other groups.”

The Smithsonian article describes their poverty. According to journalist William Bayard Hale, who visited Little Canada in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1894, “It would be an abuse to house a dog in such a place.” Some Fall River tenements, continued Hale, “do not compare favorably with old-time slave-quarters.”

The willingness of the Quebequois to work for lower pay earned them the enmity of both the English Protestants and the Irish Catholics, especially in light of ongoing labor protests.

Textile mills via Mass Moments

“Mass Moments” recounts:

Throughout the 1870s, immigrant English and Irish textile workers organized a series of labor actions and strikes. The French Canadians did not support the strikes, and in their desperate poverty they frequently took jobs as scabs or ‘knobsticks,’ as they were called. The Irish hated the French Canadians for what they saw as betrayal . . . .”

Religion was a refuge for the Canadians; French-speaking priests provided ministry as well as community leadership and social services.

In August 1884, the French Canadian priest assigned to the church serving the French Canadians died suddenly. Three months later, the Bishop named a new pastor: Father Samuel P. McGee, an Irishman. The French Canadians were outraged. As “Mass Moments” relates the story, when the new priest arrived to say Mass in mid-December, he found the doors and windows nailed shut; when he managed to get into the building, several of the parishioners held him captive and threatened to kidnap him should he attempt to return to the church. Father McGee fled the pastoral residence and went into hiding. The Canadians collected money to send a delegation to Rome to plead for the appointment of a French-speaking priest.

Tensions escalated and fights broke out between those who were willing to accept the new priest and those who insisted on a French pastor. Angry crowds gathered outside the church and disrupted services. Police were dispatched to the church to prevent “sacrilege.”

On February 13, 1885, the Bishop closed the church and withdrew the priest. The church reopened the next year, under another Irish pastor, and conflict began again. “Mass Moments” observes that ethnic tensions between Irish and French Canadians in Fall River did not ease until the end of the century when the arrival of Portuguese, Greeks, Poles, Lithuanians, and Italian immigrants changed the ethnic, political, and social mix of Fall River and other Massachusetts cities.

November 24, 1859 – Charles Darwin Publishes “On the Origin of Species” and Rocks the World

Charles Robert Darwin, born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, is best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. Darwin published his theory of evolution with meticulous evidence on November 24, 1859 – this day in history. In On the Origin of Species, he proposed that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, with differentiation of species resulting from a process of natural selection, a theory now widely accepted, and considered a foundational concept in science.

As David Quammen, an award-winning science writer, has written in The Tangled Tree, scientific discoveries in just the past forty years constitute a revolutionary revision of Darwin’s “tree” of life (although not, importantly, a repudiation of it). Because of both the electron microscope and the development of methods to sequence genes and compare genomes, we have become aware of aspects of life Darwin couldn’t even dream about.

In fact, we didn’t even know about the existence of one of the main domains of life, the archaea, until recently! (Scientists now divide all life into three domains: bacteria, archaea, and eukarya. Bacteria you are probably familiar with. Eukarya are organisms that have cells with a nucleus, and include plants and animals and human beings.

A page from Darwin’s Notebook B showing his sketch of the tree of life

But now we understand that, as Quammen explained on NPR, “innovation in genomes doesn’t always come gradually. Sometimes it comes suddenly, in an instant, by horizontal gene transfer. And that represents the convergence, not the divergence, of lineages.” This discovery means all the domains of life are much more interrelated than we thought.

In fact, we didn’t even know about the existence of one of the main domains of life, the archaea, until recently! (Scientists now divide all life into three domains: bacteria, archaea, and eukarya. Bacteria you are probably familiar with. Eukarya are organisms that have cells with a nucleus, and include plants and animals and human beings. Archaea are a microbial species like bacteria, but with major structural and ecological differences from them.)

Revision of Darwin’s tree by evolutionary biologist Carl R. Woese

The discovery of Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT, also called Lateral Gene Transfer or LGT) as a pathway to heredity, and its importance in the process of evolution, is also an astounding development Darwin could not have anticipated. This means cells can acquire genes from other cells around them, “horizontally” rather than only vertically from a previous generation. In fact, gene sequencers have been astonished at just how much HGT has been going on. This does not mean gradual evolution through previous generations did not and does not occur, but rather, that over time evolutionary change takes the shape of a tangled web more than a stereotypical looking tree.

But of course Darwin had none of the tools of modern science to refine his theory. Nevertheless, he managed to inspire revolutions not only in science but in the body politic itself, inspiring many destructive movements. The term “Darwinism” was used to support arguments for “survival of the fittest” policies including eugenics, Naziism, colonialism, and imperialism.

Moreover, as “Scientific American” notes:

More than a century and a half after Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking thesis on the development of life, evolution remains a contentious topic in the United States.”

Why? They explain:

For many religious people, the Darwinian view of life—a panorama of brutal struggle and constant change—may conflict with both the biblical creation story and the Judeo-Christian concept of an active, loving God who intervenes in human events.”

An 1871 caricature following publication of The Descent of Man was typical of many showing Darwin with an ape body, identifying him in popular culture as the leading author of evolutionary theory.

Even within the last 15 years, the article, written in 2015, avers:

. . . educators, scientists, parents, religious leaders and others in more than a dozen states have engaged in public battles in school boards, legislatures and courts over how school curricula should handle evolution. These battles have ebbed in recent years, but they have not died out.”

Probably the best website for information on Charles Darwin is “The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online,” which contains all of his publications in a free and easily accessible format. And there’s more! There are his scientific illustrations. There are tons of links to free audio mp3 files of Darwin’s works. There’s a biography with hypertext links, and pictures galore. Definitely worth checking out. You can access all of it here.

The title page of the 1st edition

October 28, 1965 – Pope Paul VI Absolves Jews of Collective Guilt for the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ

The Second Vatican Council was convened by Pope John XXIII to bring the Church into dialogue with the modern world. After John XXIII died in 1963, Pope Paul VI continued the work of the Council. Catholics were primarily affected by the modernization of the liturgy allowing for Latin to be replaced as the language of worship. But the work of the Council having the most effect on non-Catholics was the Nostra Aetate, or Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions.

The fourth section of the Declaration dealt with Judaism, and repudiated anti-Semitism and the charge that Jews were collectively guilty for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. As summarized by Tablet Magazine:

The most focused, concrete, and revolutionary assertion was that only those 1st-century Jews directly involved bore responsibility for the Crucifixion. Contemporary Jews are entirely without guilt. Beyond this, the document, invoking a classic but historically underemphasized passage in Romans chapters 9-11, asserts that Jews and Judaism are the root of Christianity and that the gifts of God, in this case the divine election of Israel, are not revoked. At the same time, it affirms that the Church awaits the day when ‘all people will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder.’’ It ‘decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone’ and calls for ‘fraternal dialogues.’”

Specifically, the Nostra Aetate stated (sounding as if it were begrudgingly conceded):

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

The impact of these words was profound, but did not have the effect of eliminating Anti-semitism altogether. Unfortunately, the common schoolyard taunt and neo-Nazi chant of “Christ killer” just morphed into a different rationale for the appealing resort to scapegoating.

Pope John XXIII in 1959

May 15, 2011 – Church of Scotland Admits it Persecuted Travelling Community

The Scottish Travelling community has been a part of Scotland since at least the 12th Century. It arose from Scottish workers who wandered the country taking seasonal farming jobs and providing goods and services, especially as tinsmiths and peddlers. In spite of their Scottish origins, they were and still are looked upon as outsiders.

Although there are no official figures on the number of Gypsy Travellers in Scotland, numbers are estimated at between 15- 20,000 people, or less than 0.5 per cent of the Scottish population. The 2011 census revealed that Scotland was the most common country of birth for Gypsy/Travellers in 2011 (76 per cent), followed by England (11 per cent).

Source: Scottish Government Report

A Fact Sheet for journalists points out:

Despite these relatively small numbers, there is significant coverage of this group of people in the media. A recent study by Amnesty International shows that a disproportionate amount of that coverage is negative.”

A report issued on this date in history by the Church of Scotland allowed:

The Travelling Community has historically suffered much discrimination. For example, in 1533 King James V issued a decree banning gypsies from Scotland saying they should ‘depart forth of this realme with their wifis, bairns and companies.’ Discrimination has continued and even intensified in the succeeding centuries as access to land for temporary sites has been more and more tightly restricted and legislation impacting on Travellers more rigorously enforced.”

In its 2011 report, the church made a public statement admitting its complicity in the persecution of Travellers and in forcibly removing children from Traveller families and sending them abroad. Church ministers were even present sometimes when youngsters were forcibly taken from their families and sent to Australia and Canada during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

But it proposed an excuse:

With hindsight, we can regard with regret some of the attitudes which the Churches have displayed towards the Travelling Community and, when it occurred, deplore their historic failure to stand alongside a minority group facing discrimination and even persecution. However, it should be acknowledged that proposals . . . were made in the belief, at the time, that they would bring benefit both to the Travelling Community and to wider society.”

In recent times, the Human Rights Act of 1998 and the Equality Act 2010 have recognized Travellers as an ethnic group which provides them with greater protection against discrimination. Nevertheless, many Travellers report continued biases affecting them in such areas as housing facilities, education, healthcare, and legislative representation. The BBC reported in 2017 that discrimination against Travellers in Scotland has become the last form of “acceptable racism.”

The Scottish Parliament focused on the issue of Traveller discrimination for Human Rights Day 2017. It admitted that research showed “entrenched and stubbornly high levels of discrimination” against the community. A recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey found 34% of people in Scotland believed a Gypsy/Traveller was “unsuitable” to be a primary school teacher, and 31% would be unhappy if a close relative married a Gypsy/Traveller.

Davie Donaldson, a young campaigner for Travellers rights, argued that people in the “settled community” needed to be more willing to meet Travellers: “We are the same as everyone else. We may have a unique culture but we have always been here. We are rooted here the same as everyone else. We are your fellow man.”

Davie Donaldson is a campaigner for Travellers rights

A Scottish government spokesman said: “We recognise that Gypsy/Travellers are among the most disenfranchised and discriminated against in society, which is why we are determined to do all we can to remove barriers to achieving equality. . . . “

To that end, the Scottish government published “A Fairer Scotland for All: Race Equality Action Plan 2017-2021” on December 11, 2017. You can access it here.

Review of “The Power of Parable” – A History of Biblical Parables by John Dominic Crossan

John Dominic Crossan, a former Catholic priest and perhaps the most respected living scholar of early Christianity, has written at least nine books about Jesus from the perspective of an historian, not as a devotional advocate. He indicates that our knowledge of the historical character known as Jesus of Nazareth is very sketchy, with no surviving contemporaneous mention of him in the historical record. Only two historians writing before the third century C.E. mention him, and then only in passing. And they, Josephus and Tacitus, wrote at least 50 years after his death. So we are left with the gospels (both apocryphal and canonical) and a handful of epistles as our only sources of the historical Jesus.

Indeed, since virtually nothing is known about any of the gospel writers, it is not clear that anyone who actually saw or heard Jesus wrote anything that has survived to the present day. Biblical scholars almost universally agree that the gospel of Mark was the first of the canonical gospels to have been composed. Mathew and Luke borrow heavily from Mark, and probably from another gospel known to scholars as the Q gospel, which has not survived. In any event, the three so called synoptic gospels tell a similar story, although they disagree with one another on numerous small details. [The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called synoptic (from the Greek syn- together and opsis appearance) because they can be compared column by column with each other.] The Gospel of John, written some 20 to 30 years after the others, differs from them not only in tone, but also (rather substantially) in the events described.

On one thing, all four canonical gospels agree: Jesus taught in parables. A parable is a metaphorical story, always pointing to something externally beyond itself. Whatever its actual content may be, a parable is never about that content. Crossan argues that the gospels themselves are parables, each with a different implicit meaning that would have been divined by knowledgeable readers familiar with issues that affected Christianity at the time they were written.

John Dominic Crossan

The parable form of narration can be used to accomplish different goals. Crossan identifies four such goals: riddles, examples, challenges, and attacks. A parable can be a riddle that hides is meaning from all but the most astute or knowledgeable listeners; it can subtlely set an example; it can challenge the listener to think, discuss, or argue with others about its implicit or unstated meaning; or it can indirectly attack a person or an idea without literal confrontation. Crossan maintains that the challenge format is the best way to understand not only the parables of Jesus in the gospels, but also the structure of each of the gospels, as parables.

An old Jewish teaching story (via Annette Simmons)

As an example of “challenge” parables, Crossan cites the stories of Ruth and Job. (He points out that the form of the stories Jesus told was an option already present in the biblical tradition.)

In the Book of Ruth, the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah demanded an immediate end to Israelite marriages with foreign women, in particular Moabites. And yet Ruth, a Moabite, turns out to be a grandmother of King David, one of Judaism’s most important figures. Thus, the story of Ruth serves as a challenge to the laws decreed by Ezra and Nehemiah. As Crossan notes wryly,

“This subversive challenge parable reminds us that general law proposes what a single story disposes.”

Ruth and Boaz Meet, original color lithograph, 1960, by Marc Chagall

The Book of Job is even more of a challenge to Israelites of the Old Testament. It is, according to Crossan, a “three-level challenge parable.” In the first place, while Job is described as the holiest man on earth and “the greatest of all the people of the east,” he is not a Jew but a Gentile. Second, Job’s friends contend that he has been so cursed because he has disobeyed the Lord (as per Deuteronomy 28). But we know Job never disobeys; ergo Deuteronomy is wrong, at least in this one instance. And finally, Job is never told, even at the end, that all of his truly horrible woes have been the result of a wager between God and Satan. This is the ultimate challenge: what kind of God does this?

Job in Despair, original color lithograph, 1960, by Marc Chagall

The teachings of Jesus described in the gospels, like the stories of Ruth and Job, challenge the listener or reader to step back from the literal content, and evaluate their deeper, figurative meanings. Crossan argues that Jesus urged the Jews of his time to cease looking for a military messiah, and look instead for a new “Kingdom of God” to be achieved through nonviolent resistance to imperial Roman control.

Crossan goes further, and argues that each of the four canonical gospels themselves, taken as a whole, can be seen on a meta level as a parable containing an implicit message in addition to the literal “facts” they purport to relate.

Clockwise from top left: Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke, as depicted in The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin created by Celtic monks ca. 800.

Crossan views the Gospel of Mark as a challenge to the authority of the twelve apostles, whom he generally describes as incompetent and less responsive to the message of Jesus than, say, various unnamed women. The Twelve are accused not only of incomprehension, but of culpable incomprehension. But since most of the Twelve were already dead, Crossan sees the challenge to “their ongoing theological tradition, leadership style, and named importance.”

Crossan labels the Gospel of Matthew as an “attack” parable. At the outset, Jesus begins with forbidding anger, insult, and name-calling (Matthew 5), but by Matthew 23, Matthew’s Jesus has upped the rhetorical violence: “this generation” of Mark becomes “an evil and adulterous generation” in Matthew. In Matthew we first hear Jesus threaten the “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew’s gospel is where we see the Jewish people as a whole say at the crucifixion, “His blood be on us and on our children.” Matthew does not see himself outside the Jewish community. To Crossan, “the very nastiness of his language indicates a stern family feud in the 80s between Christian Jewish scholars and Pharisaic Jewish scholars.” The message of Matthew’s parable is an attack on the non-Christian Jews of his time.

Crossan contends that the Gospel of Luke and the book called the Acts of the Apostles were actually one single book in two volumes by the same author. And in the book of [as he calls it] Luke-Acts, we see the Roman Empire treated rather mildly, whereas the Jews of his time are excoriated. Luke challenges Rome, but attacks Judaism.

The gospel of John is quite different from the three synoptic gospels. John regularly escalates accusations from part to whole, from Jewish authorities to the Jewish people. John writes from outside the Jewish tradition, possibly from a Samaritan tradition. John’s gospel is not only an attack on Judaism, but is also a challenge to the synoptic gospels.

In the Epilog, Crossan raises the question of whether Jesus was a real historical character or merely fictional. Crossan opines that Jesus was real, citing not only external evidence (Josephus and Tacitus) but also internal evidence. Here, cleverly, he analyzes the total change in the depiction of Jesus in the synoptic gospels to the description of him in his return to earth in the Revelation of John. In the Apocalypse, Jesus has morphed from a non-violent teacher into a mighty warrior. That very change suggests there was a real person. Why, he asks, would the early Christians invent a character they could not live with, but must steadily and terminally change into its opposite? Crossan concludes that “Jesus really existed, that we can know the significant sequence of his life . . . but that he comes to us trailing clouds of fiction, parables by him and about him, particular incidents as miniparables and whole gospels as megaparables.”

Evaluation: I have never found Crossan’s books to be anything but stimulating and insightful. He bases his observations on careful textural analysis that is unfortunately too detailed to summarize in a review. For those who have an interest in “the story behind the story” of early Christianity, one can hardly do better than to read the works of this eminent Biblical scholar.

Rating: 4/5

Published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012