Posts Tagged ‘Council of Nicaea’

David Ewing Duncan: The Calendar

December 18, 2018

51T5R64P3HL._AC_US218_I don’t know whether it’s a boy thing, but I’ve always been fascinated with clocks and calendars and time generally; apparently I learnt to tell the time before I was four, driving my mother nearly stoddy in the process. Laid up by a nasty cold I dug out and re-read this favourite of mine from twenty years ago.

Here is the history of all the different calendars, how time and the year was measured, and how all of this gradually became more accurate, as amendments and corrections were applied. I recall being astonished when I read – at the age of about nine – in The Guinness Book of Records about the longest year ever, with 445 days in it (46BC when Julius Caesar reformed the calendar). There is the complicated business of the difference between the year as measured by the stars and our ordinary year measured by the sun (and moon by some).

The key issue for the Christian Church was being able to accurately decide the date of Easter, which is not as easy as some would imagine: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox sounds clear enough until you realise that the day of the vernal equinox and the full moon can vary depending on whereabouts on the planet you happen to be… And, at the time when it was originally laid down (Council of Nicaea, 325CE, if you must know) no-one had the means of measuring or calculating anything that accurately. At some point even later, back calculations to work out when Christ was born were also inaccurate, which is why he was actually born in 4BC (or 5BC or 6BC perhaps).

Calculations were terribly limited until the Indians and Arabs came up with a numeral system that used a zero, allowing decimals to replace inaccurate fractions, which everyone just used to round away, with predictable results. And yet the Church was always suspicious or afraid of new knowledge because it represented a challenge to orthodoxy.

Things improved in the 14thcentury with the invention of the mechanical clock and the possibility of measuring hours accurately. The Gregorian calendar was devised and implemented in the Catholic world in 1582, but not in Protestant lands, which eventually and gradually fell into line, England not agreeing until 1752. So years got mismatched owing to an 11-day discrepancy and the fact that our new year began on March 25 while other countries were already using 1 January. So, in what year was Charles I beheaded? Was that 30 January 1648 or 1649? It’s all relative, of course…

The subject – as you’ll gather from above – fascinates me, and there’s a lot of information in this book, but I do have to bemoan the incredibly shoddy editing and proof-reading which produces some truly bizarre errors: travelling east from London to get to Oxford? And a mysterious city, capital of England’s greatest county, Zork? (Twice that one appears!). As for the Latin quotations – don’t get me started.

Geza Vermes: Christian Beginnings

April 3, 2017

Geza Vermes was one of the world experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Judaism, and the early history of Christianity; I’d planned to read this book for a long time. I have always been fascinated by how the Church got from the time of Jesus’ death to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Vermes analyses and explains in detail here. I learned an awful lot.

For starters, Judaism wasn’t monotheistic until the sixth century BCE: previously it had been a monolatry, ie only worshipping their god. Judaism is shown as a religion of one race or people, based on deeds and observances, whereas Christianity quite rapidly became a cosmopolitan religion of believing. Vermes shows us that the gospels portray Jesus as a charismatic prophet and healer, conventional in his Jewish beliefs and practices, but preaching that the end was near.

Vermes very carefully unpicks, and evidences, from the gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the various epistles of Paul and others, the nature, development and practices of the early church; differences and distinctions emerged very early on. At first, everyone expected the imminent second coming of Christ, which never occurred; the early church gradually worked out how to respond to this. The first structures were devised by Paul, and again, Vermes is able to show in practical terms the gradual, deliberate and necessary development of church organisation and ritual. He has an enormous grasp of detail, and from his research and evidence we get a clear and careful unpicking of the early years of the church, and we can see how much was gradually added and superimposed, as well as just plain changed by the church as it moved away from its Jewish cradle to the Roman and Greek world outside; most notably in the gradual process of turning Jesus from man to god and then to the Son of God.

Quite rapidly – by the middle of the second century – the church became embroiled in fantastical complications and contradictions, inventing dogma tentatively at first as it began to assert Jesus’ divinity, and working its way towards defining the Trinity. Anti-Jewish aspects gradually begin to emerge, too, as did the idea of heresy, and excluding those who disagreed with you. Vermes ends his exploration with the Council of Nicaea in 325, convened by the Emperor Constantine, who had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and was increasingly frustrated by the doctrinal disagreements that divided it…

What was an eye-opener for me was how so many aspects of Christianity that are nowadays accepted and believed as if they have always been, were in fact gradually devised and invented over several centuries, in other words are nothing to do with the person who was Jesus of Nazareth, but are about politics and power-games as an increasingly large and powerful organisation manoeuvred for its place in the world. And I was angered by the human arrogance, presumption or sheer stupidity – whichever you will – of human beings trying to define God, his nature and intentions. If there is a God, s/he is way beyond such pettiness and silliness. On the other hand, as Ludwig Feuerbach once wrote, human beings have invented God in their own image. Obviously.

The book was fascinating; I learned a lot, as I noted earlier, and it hasn’t changed my beliefs one jot: Jesus remains a preacher, philosopher and prophet who had an important message – just as others did – and who has had a huge impact in so many different ways on our part of the world.

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