A Christmas Post

Interesting article on Intellectual Takeout:

The Myth of the Pagan Origins of Christmas

It’s generally accepted that early Christians adopted December 25th as the day of Christ’s birth to co-opt the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Some believe this fact undermines Christianity.

But according to Professor William Tighe, this “fact” may actually be a myth.

Based on his extensive research, Tighe argues that the December 25th date “arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.” He also goes so far as to claim that the December 25th pagan feast of the “’Birth of the Unconquered Sun’… was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance of Roman Christians.”

In the Jewish tradition at the time of Christ, Tighe explains, there was a belief in what they called the “integral age”—that the prophets had died on the same days of their conception or birth. Early Christians spent much energy on determining the exact date of Christ’s death. Using historical sources, Christians in the first or second century settled on March 25th as the date of his crucifixion. Soon after, March 25th became the accepted date of Christ’s conception, as well.

Add nine months—the standard term of a pregnancy—to March 25th, and Christians came up with December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth.

It is unknown exactly when Christians began formally celebrating December 25th as a feast. What is known, however, is that the date of December 25th “had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time (Roman emperor from 270-275), nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.” According to Tighe, Aurelian intended the new feast “to be a symbol of the hoped-for ‘rebirth,’ or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire…. [and] if it co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.”

As Tighe points out, the now-popular idea that Christians co-opted the pagan feast originates with Paul Ernst Jablonski (1693-1757), who opposed various supposed “paganizations” of Christianity.

I have never heard of the notion of “integral age,” and it seems a dollop of fudge to claim that it was conceptually important for someone to die on the “same day as his conception or birth.” Well, which is it? Moreover, I have never heard of the observance of the Crucifixion being fixed on March 25, or on any other date for that matter – Jesus was executed at Passover, which is a movable feast against the solar calendar. In observance of this, the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection has always been movable as well. Wikipedia on the Computus

Easter is the most important Christian feast, and the proper date of its celebration has been the subject of controversyas early as the meeting of Anicetus and Polycarp around 154. According to Eusebius’ Church History, quoting Polycrates of Ephesus, churches in the Roman Province of Asia “always observed the day when the people put away the leaven“, namely Passover, the 14th of the lunar month of Nisan. The rest of the Christian world at that time, according to Eusebius, held to “the view which still prevails,” of fixing Easter on Sunday. Eusebius does not say how the Sunday was decided. Other documents from the 3rd and 4th centuries reveal that the customary practice was for Christians to consult their Jewish neighbors to determine when the week of Passover would fall, and to set Easter on the Sunday that fell within that week.

At some point it became important for Christians to ensure that the celebration of Easter did not coincide with Passover – and anyone who calculated it differently, like the Irish, was committing a grievous error. But note that in either case Easter was still movable. March 25 is the feast of the Annunciation, certainly, but only in relation to December 25, the (non-movable) feast of Christ’s birth.

So I can’t say that I’m convinced. Tighe’s instincts might be correct – people have accused Christianity of being a mélange of paganism ever since the Reformation, but this question is not something you can give a blanket judgment about; you have to examine Christian beliefs and practices on a case-by-case basis, and provide real evidence for pagan influence, and not simply “parallels.” But sometimes paganism really has influenced Christianity, if only through competition, and I would say that that still seems to be the case here. 

The Coptic Church

Coptic Cross, El Damshiria Church, Old Cairo.

Some background: the Fourth Ecumenical Council was held at Chalcedon, now a part of the Kadıköy district of Istanbul, in AD 451. It is famous for ruling that Jesus had two natures – he was both fully God and fully man – against a contrary position that held that Jesus had one nature, in which the divine and the human were inseparably united. Detractors called this position “monophysitism,” while its adherents preferred “miaphysitism.” Chalcedon led to a schism that has never been completely healed. Of the five great Christian patriarchates of the time (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Rome), Alexandria and Antioch refused to accept the judgment of the Council, and retained a belief in miaphysitism. These patriarchates are now designated the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church, respectively, and along with the Ethiopian, Eritrean, Armenian, and Malankaran (Indian) Orthodox Churches, comprise a group known as the “Oriental Orthodox” churches, all of which reject the view that Jesus, while on Earth, had separate natures.*

(Eastern Orthodoxy, by contrast, recognizes the Council of Chalcedon, and comprises a somewhat larger communion. Although most Christians under the rule of the Patriarch of Alexandria and the Patriarch of Antioch became members of the Coptic and Syriac Orthodox churches, there are Chalcedonian (“Greek”) Orthodox patriarchates for these cities too, and there remain Chalcedonian patriarchates for Jerusalem and Constantinople – four of the original five members of the pentarchy. These are all liturgically Greek, and together with the actual Church of Greece comprise Greek Orthodoxy. These churches are in communion with other “autocephalous” Eastern Orthodox churches, including churches for Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. One must also keep in mind that the Roman Catholic Church has actively missionized to the Orthodox, whether Eastern or Oriental, and so there is now Armenian Catholic Church, a Syriac Catholic Church, a Coptic Catholic Church, a Greek Catholic Church, and so on – collectively these are the Eastern Catholic Churches.**)

Door, Coptic Cairo.

Approximately ten percent of Egypt’s population is Christian, the vast majority of whom are Coptic Orthodox. (According to Wikipedia, the Coptic Orthodox in Egypt number about twelve million souls, with the Greek Orthodox in second place at 300,000, and the Coptic Catholics in third at 200,000). Probably the best place to explore Christian Cairo is around the Mar Girgis (“St. George”) metro station, where one can find numerous Christian monasteries, cemeteries, and churches. The largest and most obvious is actually Greek Orthodox, but the rest are Coptic, and quite historic. 

Pulpit and screen, Church of St. Barbara, Old Cairo.

Nave, Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church (the “Hanging Church”), Old Cairo.

Nave, St. Sergius and St. Bacchus Church (“Abu Serga”), Old Cairo.

As you can see, in Coptic churches the sanctuary is closed off from the nave by a screen, which in these three cases consists of intricately carved and inlaid woodwork. Other features include a marble pulpit on the left side of the nave, pillars (often different in style from each other, representing the different apostles, according to my guide), and a wooden ceiling representing Noah’s Ark. Abu Serga Church takes great pride in its status as place of refuge for Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus from the persecution of Herod the Great in Judaea. The church has numerous icons of the Flight into Egypt, and in the crypt, one finds a well from which they drank.

Actually, Abu Serga is not the only place they stayed. Tradition holds that the Holy Family did a grand tour of Egypt during their sojourn there, bestowing bragging rights on many places.

Around the walls of the nave in the average Coptic church, one tends to find banks of icons, sometimes with glass cases beneath them, containing cloth “rolls” which, I was told, hold relics. One can deposit petitions or offerings in the glass case. This set of icons can be seen in St. Shenouda’s Church, slightly to the north of the three mentioned above.

Icons, St. Shenouda Church, Old Cairo.

And these two are in the nearby Antique Church of the Holy Virgin Mary, also known as “El Damshiria.” Note all the petitions to the saint on the right.

Icons, Church of El Damshiria, Old Cairo.

Some of the more popular saints include:

Saint Menas, the fourth-century soldier, ascetic, and martyr, usually shown between the two camels that brought his body back to Egypt from Phrygia.

Saints Sergius and Bacchus, a pair of Roman soldiers executed in Syria under Emperor Galerius.

Saint Anthony the Great, founder of Egyptian monasticism, and Saint Paul of Thebes, also known as Saint Paul the First Hermit.

Saint Mercurius, a third-century soldier and martyr under Emperor Decius. The image of him riding a horse and brandishing two swords over his head (and spearing a prostate man with a lance) is very common and represents a posthumous miracle. During the reign of the pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-63), Saint Basil prayed before an icon of Saint Mercurius and asked him not to let Julian return from his campaign against the Persians. The image then disappeared, only to reappear later with a bloodied spear. Soon afterwards, news arrived of the death of Julian, killed in battle by an unknown soldier.

Saint George. Note the appearance of the miniature pitcher-bearer riding with him.

Veneration continues for more recent deaths: the image of Mother Irini (1936-2006), visionary, miracle-worker, and abbess of the Abu Sefein Convent in Old Cairo, was common….

… and votaries pray at her shrine at Abu Sefein.

Sister Theophania of St. George’s convent also gave me a little book on the life of Father Yostos (1910-76), a monk at the monastery of St. Anthony and a miracle-worker.

In Old Cairo one may also visit the newly-restored Coptic Museum, which houses an extensive collection of artifacts from Coptic history. My thanks to my guide Yasir Magdi for showing me around.

Beyond Old Cairo, one can find Coptic Churches here and there throughout the city. The most important is St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Abbassia District, which took me a while to find. It is also, as you can see, under restoration.

Although the Coptic Orthodox Church is officially the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, where St. Mark reputedly founded it, the seat of the patriarch has been in Cairo since the eleventh century, and in this church building from 1968. Since 2012, when Shenouda III died, the office has been held by Tawadros II, whose name was selected from a shortlist of three candidates by a blindfolded boy, believed to be guided by the hand of God. The Coptic patriarch uses the title “Pope,” the only other one besides the Bishop of Rome to do so.

The word “Copt” derives ultimately from the Greek word Aigyptios, meaning “Egypt,” and Copts are quite proud of their status as the descendants of the ancient Egyptians. St. Mark’s efforts in Alexandria won a great number of converts who were native Egyptians (i.e. neither Greek nor Jewish, as were most of the original Christians), and the Coptic language is a direct descendant of the Demotic Egyptian of the Roman Era. (You can see examples of its script in some of the photos above – it is essentially the Greek alphabet, with seven extra characters.) Alas, it is purely a liturgical language nowadays – most Copts speak (and worship in) the same Arabic language as their neighbors. If anything sets them apart, it is a discreet tattoo that many of them will get on their inner wrists, as a memento of their faith. I must record that all the Egyptian Muslims I spoke with insisted that the Copts were their brothers and fellow Egyptians – although the level of security around Coptic churches (a necessary precaution following some recent unfortunate incidents) would suggest that not everyone shares this opinion. 

* Voltaire: “Assuredly, I understand nothing of this; no one has ever understood any of it, and that is why we have slaughtered one another.” Actually, I think that other concerns usually hang on such abstruse questions. In the case of Chalcedon, I would not be surprised if the much older Patriarchate of Alexandria resented the growing influence of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

** There is also the Church of the East, the result of the earlier Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431, which condemned Nestorius, who had emphasized the distinction between Jesus’ human and divine natures. Those Christians living in the Persian Empire refused to accept this condemnation, and were consequently known as Nestorian Christians. The Assyrian Church of the East continues this theological tradition

Postscript: Prior to this trip, it never occurred to me where Antioch is currently located. It is in Turkey, specifically in Hatay Province, and is known as Antakya. Hatay Province is the little bit of Turkey that sticks down along the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Google maps.

Hatay was at one point controversial – and in some ways still is. As a result of the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) the area, designated the “Sanjak of Alexandretta,” was assigned to the French Mandate of Syria. It contained a significant Turkish population, however, which inspired (and probably directed) by Atatürk, started instituting reforms similar to his, and agitating for closer ties to Turkey. Upon the expiration of the French Mandate in 1935, these Turks managed to elect two “independentist” MPs for Alexandretta, who succeeded in getting the French to endorse its independence as the State of Hatay (Atatürk’s name for the place, after the word for “Hittite”). So from September 1938 until June 1939, Hatay was an independent country, with its own flag, looking suspiciously like Turkey’s.

Wikipedia.

A referendum in Hatay approved of Anchluss with Turkey; that Turkey trucked in tens of thousands of its citizens for the vote certainly helped achieve this result. Syria protested, but to no avail – the French were hoping to prevent Turkey from going over to the Germans, as it had in the First World War, and so allowed the merger to go forward. Upon annexation by Turkey many of the Arabs and Armenians of Hatay decamped for Syria, fearful that they would not be welcome in the Turkish ethnostate; certainly the Patriarchates of Antioch, whether Syriac or Greek, are now headquartered in Damascus.

Christian Remains

In Turkey, I saw exactly one functioning Christian church: St. George’s Cathedral, seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople which the Turks, in their generosity, allow to be headquartered in Istanbul. Otherwise, as the result of Islamization in the Middle Ages (detailed by Speros Vyronis in The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century) and population transfer (or plain old persecution) in the twentieth century, 99% of Turks consider themselves Muslim, or at least culturally Muslim. Yet at one point Asia Minor was very Christian indeed, and Christian remains abound (although I should say that these are Greek Christian remains – Turkey has attempted to systematically erase any evidence that Armenians ever lived there).

¶ The most famous formerly Christian site, of course, is Istanbul’s Church of the Holy Wisdom (“Hagia Sophia” in Greek, “Ayasofya” in Turkish). This was ordered built by the Emperor Justinian in the 530s, and for almost a thousand years it was the largest Christian church in the world. (Its central dome, too, was the largest until surpassed by Brunelleschi’s dome on Florence Cathedral in 1436.) As the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it was considered especially holy, and decorated accordingly. Procopius describes it as:

distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in its size, and in the harmony of its measures, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are not of so just a proportion. The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church….

No one ever became weary of this spectacle, but those who are in the church delight in what they see, and, when they leave, magnify it in their talk. Moreover it is impossible accurately to describe the gold, and silver, and gems, presented by the Emperor Justinian, but by the description of one part, I leave the rest to be inferred. That part of the church which is especially sacred, and where the priests alone are allowed to enter, which is called the Sanctuary, contains forty thousand pounds’ weight of silver.

Witnessing his creation, Justinian is said to have proclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

Of course, anything richly endowed will become a target for looters, and Hagia Sophia was pretty much stripped bare by western Crusaders when they sacked Constantinople in 1204. Any replacement decoration was stripped again in 1453, when the Ottomans under Mehmet II conquered Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, complete with mihrab, minbar, and minarets, and eventually large roundels with the names of Allah, Mohammad, the first four caliphs, and Mohammad’s grandchildren Hassan and Hussein, suspended from the ceiling.

Roundels of Hassan and Hussein, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until Atatürk closed it in 1931, and then reopened it in 1935 as a museum. This has allowed archaeologists to uncover some Byzantine mosaics that had been plastered over.

A partial mosaic of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and John the Baptist, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

It seemed to me, when I visited, that the museum’s marketing depends far more on its Christian than its Muslim heritage, but I wonder how much longer it will be before it becomes a mosque again. Following Pope Francis’s acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, protesters gathered outside demanding that Hagia Sophia be recommissioned as a mosque, and the following year Muslim prayers were held there for the first time in 85 years. (Given that there are some 3000 mosques in Istanbul, this does seem a trifle selfish, but it’s certainly in keeping with the times in Turkey.)

(Frankly, as historically significant as the building is, I did not find it that impressive. It’s as though Justinian bit off more than he could chew when he ordered it. Someone mentioned that they’ve been rebuilding it since it was first built – and it’s true, there are all sorts of kludge repairs that you notice when you get to see it up close. Istanbul’s grander mosques, like the Suleyman Mosque or the Blue Mosque, are much more architecturally impressive.)

Elsewhere in Istanbul, we have “Little Hagia Sophia,” a former Byzantine Church commissioned by Justinian and dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The Ottomans turned into a mosque and it remains in use as one. You won’t see any Christian decoration, but the style of the columns and the awkwardly placed minbar indicate that it wasn’t originally an Islamic building.

Near Hagia Sophia, one finds Hagia Irene (the Church of the Holy Peace). This church was also built by Justinian, but was not converted for use as a mosque – it became an arsenal for the nearby Topkapı Palace. Since 1980, it has been used as a concert hall on account of its superior acoustics.

Note the cross on the apse, an artifact of the iconoclastic period, which prescribed such simple, symbolic decoration.

The central dome through anti-bird-poop netting.

Chairs, stage, and side aisle.

The most Christian archaeological site that I saw in Istanbul was Chora Church, which was originally a part of a monastery located in the fields (“chora”) outside the walls of Constantinople. Like Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora became a mosque following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, and like Hagia Sophia became a museum in the twentieth century. This allowed the uncovering of a great panoply of mosaics and frescos, far more than they have found in Hagia Sophia. I spent quite a bit of time there transfixed by the beauty of it all.

Christos Pantokator mosaic.

Mosaic of the enrollment for taxation under Governor Quirinius.

View of the esonarthex.

Fresco of four bishops.

Fresco of St. George.

Mosaic of Theodore Metochites presenting a model of Chora Church to an enthroned Christ. Metochites paid for the church’s restoration after the depredations of the Crusaders. Apparently fourteenth-century Byzantines wore turbans.

Mosaic of the wedding at Cana.

I highly recommend Chora Church if you’re visiting Istanbul. Hopefully the restoration work on the nave will be completed before too long and you’ll be able to see that, too.

(My thanks to Stephen Bartlett for telling me about all of these sites.)

¶ In the interior of Turkey, around the city of Nevşehir, is an area designated “Cappadocia” for tourist purposes, so-called after an ancient area of the same name. The distinguishing geographical feature of Cappadocia is its soft volcanic rock that is easily carved into dwellings. Here is the view from my hotel, which itself was carved into a hillside

Cappadocia was the site of a thriving Christian community even prior to the conversion of the Roman Empire; Cappadocia’s relative remoteness and the ability of its inhabitants to create underground cities which could shelter them from persecution were advantageous (this was certainly the case for the subsequent Persian, Arab, and Turkish invasions). The church fathers Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus all hailed from Cappadocia, and one of St. George’s place designators is “St. George of Cappadocia.” (This title, though, was likely transferred to him from another George of Cappadocia, the Arian archbishop of Alexandria in the 360s, who was certainly no saint.)

The main attraction for Christian remains in Cappadocia is the Göreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which features several rock-cut churches and chapels. Some of these were in use up until the expulsion of the Greeks in the 1920s; it’s nice that they have been preserved and not destroyed. Some of the art is gorgeous, although photography is generally forbidden and you have to be surreptitious about it.

I was pleased to snap this one of St. George. My favorite painting showed St. George and St. Theodore sharing a dragon to kill.

Interestingly, many of the churches are decorated in a style deriving from the iconoclastic period, not showing saints, but monochrome drawings of crosses and other geometric designs.

In the afternoon I drove to the Ihlara Valley, which turned out to be over an hour away and in the next province over (the tourist map was not really to scale). But it was certainly worth the trip! I enjoyed hiking along the Melendi River, and exploring any number of rock-cut chapels in the cliffs.

Their decoration was not as well preserved as at Göreme, but certainly captivating.

I spent way too little time in Cappadocia and am hoping for an excuse to return some day.

¶ Selçuk, on the Aegean coast, has a great archaeological museum, but the real attraction is the Roman city of Ephesus, whose ruins are some of the most extensive anywhere. You get a real sense of what it must have been like to live in a Roman city.

Main Street.

Library of Celsus.

Theater.

Ephesus was important to Christian history. St. Paul lived there for two years in the AD 50s, cultivating a Christian community; one of his later letters to this community was canonized as the Epistle to the Ephesians. Visitors can see some vestiges of Christian Ephesus, like these crosses…

…or this eight-spoked wheel, which is supposed to represent all the letters of the word ΙΧΘΥΣ – an acronym for “Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Savior” – lying on top of each other.

Ephesus was one of the seven churches in Asia enumerated in the book of Revelation, and it was the site of the third ecumenical council in 431, which affirmed the Nicene Creed and the acceptability of designating the Virgin Mary Theotokos (as opposed to merely Christotokos). I saw the remains of the church of St. Mary where this council took place, although the sun was in the wrong place for any pictures.

Sadly, I did not get to see the cave of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the House of the Virgin Mary, or the Basilica of St. John. Next time!

“Filial Correction”

From the National Catholic Register (via Instapundit), notice of a letter sent to Pope Francis last month, offering a “Filial Correction Concerning the Propagation of Heresies,” from 62 Catholic notables. The article claims that the last such correction was given to Pope John XXII in 1333. Correctio Filialis comes in three main parts:

In the first part, the signatories explain why, as believing and practising Catholics, they have the right and duty to issue such a correction to the supreme pontiff. Church law itself requires that competent persons not remain silent when the pastors of the Church are misleading the flock. This involves no conflict with the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility, since the Church teaches that a pope must meet strict criteria before his utterances can be considered infallible. Pope Francis has not met these criteria. He has not declared these heretical positions to be definitive teachings of the Church, or stated that Catholics must believe them with the assent of faith. The Church teaches no pope can claim that God has revealed some new truth to him, which it would be obligatory for Catholics to believe.

The second part of the letter is the essential one, since it contains the ‘Correction’ properly speaking. It lists the passages of Amoris laetitia in which heretical positions are insinuated or encouraged, and then it lists words, deeds, and omissions of Pope Francis which make it clear beyond reasonable doubt that he wishes Catholics to interpret these passages in a way that is, in fact, heretical. In particular, the pope has directly or indirectly countenanced the beliefs that obedience to God’s Law can be impossible or undesirable, and that the Church should sometimes accept adultery as compatible with being a practising Catholic.

The final part, called ‘Elucidation’, discusses two causes of this unique crisis. One cause is ‘Modernism’. Theologically speaking, Modernism is the belief that God has not delivered definite truths to the Church, which she must continue to teach in exactly the same sense until the end of time. Modernists hold that God communicates to mankind only experiences, which human beings can reflect on, so as to make various statements about God, life and religion; but such statements are only provisional, never fixed dogmas. Modernism was condemned by Pope St Pius X at the start of the 20th century, but it revived in the middle of the century. The great and continuing confusion caused in the Catholic Church by Modernism obliges the signatories to describe the true meaning of ‘faith’, ‘heresy’, ‘revelation’, and ‘magisterium’.

I would really hate to hear what they think of postmodernism! I love how the article describes Martin Luther as a “heresiarch.”

By the way, to help celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the composition of the 95 theses next month, PBS premiered “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World” last week. I believe you can still see it on the PBS website. It was sponsored by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, so you won’t hear him described in such terms.

Luther’s Handwriting

An exciting discovery at Emory, just in time for the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Luther’s 95 Theses:

A three line inscription on the title page of a 1520 pamphlet from the Richard C. Kessler Reformation Collection was recently identified by the German Church Historian Ulrich Bubenheimer as being in the hand of Martin Luther himself!

The author of the pamphlet–a fictitious dialogue critical of Pope Leo X’s bull that threatened Martin Luther with excommunication–was previously unknown. However, Luther’s gift inscription to Wolfgang Wolprecht, Prior of the Augustinian monastery in Nuremberg, allows us to conclude that it was composed by Johannes Petzensteiner (1487-1554), a fellow Augustinian who had come to Wittenberg from Nuremberg to serve as lector.

The inscription reads idest p.[atris] lectoris / Betzensteynn / priori Volfgango Volprechto N[urenbergensi] (= This is Pater Lector Betzensteynn, for Prior Wolfgang Wolprecht of Nuremberg) and follows the printed line Excusum, impensis & opera Iohannis Coticulae. The Latin coticula means whetstone (German Wetzstein), which becomes Betzstein or Petztstein in some German dialects and thus came to serve as a pseudonym for Johannes Petzenstein, who was later one of Luther’s two travel companions (with Nikolaus Amsdorff) on his return to Wittenberg from the Diet of Worms.

We are delighted with this new discovery and with Prof. Bubenheimer’s verification. As Kessler Scholars Advisory Committee member Tim Wengert noted, “Over the course of his career, Prof. Bubenheimer has proved himself to be the premier expert in identifying Luther’s handwriting, having spent his entire career uncovering hitherto unknown inscriptions by Luther. In this particular case, his reconstruction is spot on and helps to show the way other fellow Augustinians supported Luther in the early stages of the Reformation.”

Images at the link.

Hocus Pocus

I told my students the other day that they should not say “hocus-pocus,” because it’s anti-Catholic, a mockery of “hoc est corpus meum,” the words a Catholic priest uses to transubstantiate the bread into the actual flesh of Jesus. (Actually, I see now that this is only one of several possible explanations of this phrase.) They then asked what words were used to transubstantiate the wine. After explaining just why blood is optional when you’re consuming flesh, I said that it would be “hoc est sanguis…” and balked at the gender of the pronoun. I asked what the gender of “sangre” was, and a Hispanic student said that it was feminine, “la sangre.” But then an Ivorian student pointed out that it’s “le sang” in French, i.e. masculine – and of course she’s right, as the line from the “Marseillaise” is “qu’un sang impur,” not “qu’une sang impure.” This prompted me to look up “sanguis” online, and to discover that in Latin it’s indeed masculine. So the expression logically would be “hic est sanguis meus.” But I have never seen an example of genders shifting like this from Latin to one of its Romance descendants. I wonder what caused this, and how many other words have undergone such gender-bending.

(Of course, I have also discovered in the meantime that my Latin may be logical, but it’s not what was actually said. According to the Medieval Sourcebook, the two Latin rite sentences are:

HOC EST ENIM CORPUS MEUM

and

HIC EST ENIM CALIX SANGUINIS MEI

that is, “for this is my body,” and “for this is the cup of my blood.”)

Hymns

From Ponder Anew, a blog on Patheos (via my friend Bill Campbell):

No, the melodies of our beloved hymns weren’t borrowed from drinking songs, bar tunes, and tavern music. I’ve had about ten comments on my blog posts this week alone trying to use the bar song myth as their smoking gun in the case for commercial worship. It’s an argument many love to make, but it didn’t happen.

Those most often implicated in this myth are Martin Luther and the Wesleys. Luther did use German Bar form, a musical style in an AAB pattern having nothing to do with the suds. There is no indication John John and Charlie ever suggested such a thing, and knowing their position on imbibing and the importance placed on proper text/tune pairing, it’s unlikely the would have even considered the idea. Tunes were occasionally borrowed from existing folk songs, but they weren’t simply extracted from whatever people were singing at the local watering hole and paired with jesusy poetry. And even if they were, it was not, as commercial worship apologists are wont to say, in an effort to borrow from culture for the purpose of evangelism or getting butts on the stools…er…in the pews.

This rumor has been thoroughly debunked by both scholars and laypeople. So why do people still believe it? I’m not entirely sure, but it seems like the “Grassy Knoll” theory of Christian hymnody. There’s no evidence for it, but dang it, it’s just more interesting than the truth.

Irresponsible? Yes, absolutely.

Difficult to suppress? You bet.

Some Twitter exchanges promoting the idea follow.

Pew! Pew! Pew!

An interesting article on Christ and Pop Culture, by Luke T. Harrington:

The History of Pews Is Just as Terrible and Embarrassing as You’d Imagine

Is there anything more reassuring than a church pew?

Simple. Humble. Sturdy. Two rough-hewn planks, fastened with a handful of nails, permanently fixed to the floor—and open to all. Occasionally padded, often not; not comfortable, exactly, but comforting. An invitation to the weary traveler to sit and hear the Word of God proclaimed; a simple reminder that we follow a humble, crucified carpenter; the perfect symbol that all are equal at the foot of the cross. From the greatest king to the poorest pauper, from the holiest saint to the most desperate sinner, all have sat in these pews before us, pondering their failings and begging for mercy. Despite the advent of stadium-style seating and auditorium-like worship halls, the simple, ancient pew endures—and no wonder, because it is, and always has been, the perfect metaphor for the faith.

Seating in churches didn’t really become a thing until parishioners got bored enough to wish they were sitting down—that is, about the time of the Protestant Reformation.Except—nothing I just said is even remotely true. In fact, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of all that. Would you like to know the true story of the pew? Okay, then—buckle up. (But not actually, though, because pews don’t have seatbelts.)

It turns out that there’s no evidence of churches having seating of any kind for at least the first 1,400 years or so of Christianity. In other words, Augustine, Athanasius, Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin—all those guys very likely lived their whole lives attending churches that were standing-room-only. During ancient Christian worship, parishioners could stand, kneel, or even mill about the nave if they so chose. There’s no record of whether they engaged in stage dives and crowd surfing, so we’re forced to assume they did.

If this sounds insanely uncomfortable to you, keep in mind that which body postures are considered comfortable or uncomfortable is a highly culturally constructed thing. The ancient Romans, for instance, almost never sat in chairs, preferring to stand or recline, while modern Japanese are still perfectly happy sitting on the floor, even well into their elder years. The idea that sitting in a backed chair is comfortable is a modern, Western notion, and one we’re currently learning has all sorts of health drawbacks. Also keep in mind that ancient and medieval Christian worship involved the average parishioner much more actively, with a lot of kneeling and recitation, and climaxed with the entire congregation coming forward for communion.

In other words, seating in churches didn’t really become a thing until parishioners got bored enough to wish they were sitting down—that is, about the time of the Protestant Reformation. In order to emphasize how not-Catholic we were, we began to jettison everything from our worship: confessions, creeds, communal prayer, a weekly Eucharist—basically everything except long, boring sermons. And when your “come to church” sales pitch is essentially “Listen to me yammer about Jesus for several hours!” the response is predictably going to be “Uh, can I at least sit down for that?”

And so, the pew was born.

When pews first began to gain in popularity, however, they weren’t anything you probably would have recognized as pews—they were more like those luxury skyboxes they have at sports stadiums. So-called “box pews,” which were particularly popular in England and America, were anything but the austere benches you’re used to, and featured four walls—often shoulder-height or higher—along with doors, windows, curtains, kneelers, tables, and sometimes even fireplaces. Basically you could hide in them and do whatever the 17th-century version of playing games on your iPad was (I’m guessing cock fights?).

They were also bought and paid for—and frequently custom-built—by each congregation’s wealthiest families, who held actual deeds to them and frequently passed them down to their children as real estate, like the world’s worst timeshares. On the rare occasion that the deed to a pew would free up, there was more often than not a public fistfight (a metaphorical one, usually) over which family would get it—being seen in a prominent pew was an important status symbol, like having the biggest beard at an Acts 29 church or having the dorkiest fedora at Hillsong.

In other words, they were pretty much the exact opposite of what Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke:

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, “Give your place to this person,” and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

There’s a little bit more, and a good picture, at the link. I had heard about box pews; I wouldn’t quite say that they were “terrible and embarrassing,” but yeah, I’m glad that nowadays you can sit anywhere and contribute what you can as the plate gets passed.

Rex inutilis

An interesting post on the OUP blog by Sophie Thérèse Ambler, courtesy my friend Bill Campbell:

What to do with a simple-minded ruler: a medieval solution

The thirteenth century saw the reigns of several rulers ill-equipped for the task of government, decried not as tyrants but incompetents. Sancho II of Portugal (1223–48), his critics said, let his kingdom fall to ruin on account of his “idleness,” “timidity of spirit,” and “simplicity”. The last term, simplex, could mean straightforward, but here it meant only simple-minded, foolish, stupid. The same term was used to describe the English king Henry III (1216–72), as well as John Balliol, the hapless king of Scotland (1292–96) appointed by England’s Edward I. As the elites of these kingdoms knew too well, it could happen on occasion that a man rose to officewhether he had been born to claim it, had won the right to hold it, or had found it thrust upon himwho did not have the intelligence to wield power.

Such a situation was dangerous, for subjects would suffer. In Portugal, it was claimed that Sancho’s inability to govern had allowed Church liberties to be attacked, women to be defiled, and the common folk to be oppressed. England’s Henry III had frittered away his resources, monies needed desperately to maintain his government; the result, it was claimed, was that Henry did not even have the cash to buy food and drink for his household and had turned to seizing victuals from his people, leaving them impoverished. The subjects of John Balliol had, perhaps, the most to fear from their king’s simplicity: John was incapable of standing up to Edward I, when a stand was needed urgently to defend his people from the bullying English king.

The people of Portugal, England, and Scotland knew of a potential solution to the problem of their simple-minded rulers: the rex inutilis theory (literally, “useless king”). This was a tenet of Church law that provided, when a bishop was too infirm to fulfill his duties, for the appointment of a coadjutor to exercise power on his behalf. The theory could be applied to lay rulers too, though it addressed here the problem of incompetence rather than infirmity.

It was the pope who held the power to pronounce a king rex inutilis. The papal court was like a medieval United Nations: its interests ranged from the making of peace between polities to the proper conduct of rulers, and the well-being of all those under the Church’s care. To this end, the pope had a mighty moral weapon in his arsenal: he could depose rulers and free subjects from their oaths of fealty or, as in the case of a rex inutilis, take effective power from his hands.

More at the link.

Angel Roofs

From my friend Tim Emmett, pastor of the Waleska UMC, an interesting gallery on BBC Travel of photographs of angel roofs, which were a regular feature of late medieval English church architecture. The first caption reads:

Think of medieval England’s finest gems, and castles probably come to mind first. But the country has another type of treasure that few people know about: angel roofs. Built between 1395 and the English Reformation of the mid-1500s, these roofs are decorated with intricately carved wooden angels. Only 170 survive today. Because so little of the art from England’s medieval churches survived the Reformation, that still makes these cherubim “the largest surviving body of major English medieval wood sculpture”, writes photographer and expert Michael Rimmer in his book The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages.

Click the link to see a collection of Rimmer’s photographs. I had no idea these were a thing, nor that the Reformation had such a problem with them (after all, angels were biblical – unlike saints!).