Category Archives: History

Whither Our Universities? Part 1

Is the sun setting on our universities?

Since high school, one way or another, I have been associated with universities. First as a student (undergraduate and graduate), then as a Postdoctoral Fellow, as a research collaborator, and also as an Adjunct Professor. I have also participated in academic pursuits such as writing and refereeing papers. Organic Chemistry was my focus and through that discipline I met many fine people.

A writer of futuristic fiction is concerned about where things are headed

As a writer of futuristic fiction, I am driven by “What if …” questions. Since universities have played such an instrumental role in our culture in molding the sequential generations, naturally enough, some of the “What if” questions deal with trends or potential trends I have observed in higher education.

In my novel, The Halcyon Dislocation, the movement and isolation of a hypothetical University of Halcyon to a parallel world sets up an experimental literary sandbox. One can ask the question, what would the university elites do if they had the opportunity to channel the thinking of their students in any direction they chose? What would they choose? How would they get there?

What would university elites choose if they could mold student thinking in any direction they wanted?

One of the problems that plagues science, indeed culture and politics as well is the question:

If I can do something, how do I determine if I should do that very thing?

The “can” is usually determined by data, experimentation, and collective scholarship, but the “shoulds” remain elusive since they depend on the question of objective right and wrong which is inaccessible to data and experimentation. In the absence of an objective right or wrong, the answer often becomes: “Because I have the power and I want to, I will do it and no one can stop me.”

The danger then, for universities, is the tendency to becoming factories of conditioned students rather than nurturing educated students who have learned to thoughtfully consider opposing points of view in humility and respect.

Becoming factories producing conditioned students, rather than educational institutions that enable students to thoughtfully consider different viewpoints with respect, is one of the dangers universities face

The antidote to this tendency to become ever more efficient conditioners of students as our manipulative skills and technology increase, is to make sure opposing voices (including religious voices) are not only allowed to speak, but are heard and considered. Free speech is the best safeguard against conditioned speech.

A Recent Example That Hits Close to Home

I know of Organic Chemistry Professor Tomas Hudlicky by his fine reputation. He wrote, and had accepted a paper in Angewandte Chemie (along with the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Angewandte Chemie is arguably one of the two best journals in chemistry). However, after the Twitterati ignited a Twitter storm (Twitter Gewitter?) everything changed for Professor Hudlicky, According to an article in the National Post by Peter Shawn Taylor, the accepted paper was withdrawn by Angewandte Chemie, the two referees were taken off the referees list (I’m sure as volunteers they have better things to do with their time) and the editor was suspended.

I respectfully suggest you read the whole paper, as I did, or at least read up to page 4, along with Note 2 which seemed to cause all the offense and then think about discussing the points Professor Hudlicky is making.

The text of the paper if it’s still available … Hudlicky Paper

Retraction Watch with resignations

Another Retraction Watch discussion

A blog by Jordan Peterson on this specific topic

In my view, the proper way to proceed is to have everyone, first read the paper, then present their best arguments in respectful discussion. A view or position that is not permitted to be questioned, is likely indefensible. If the case for the other side were compelling, why not make it? Is that not the mission of universities to encourage students to properly discuss opposing points of view with respect and leave the final convictions that come out of the discussion to the students? Apparently not.

A Collision of Two Imperfect Causes

I have read and enjoyed The Last Castle several times. I enjoyed it so much, I am reading it now in its much longer, original, unedited version. The title MacDonald originally chose was St. George and St. Michael.

MacDonald’s story begins in 1641 shortly after Thomas Wentworth, The Earl of Stafford was arrested by Parliament, tried for treason, and beheaded. King Charles I, a personal friend of Stafford, signed the order for the execution and regretted his decision to his dying day.

MacDonald, as a masterful storyteller, does not chose the easy road and cast the conflict between Parliament (Roundheads, Puritans) and the King as a one dimensional conflict between Good and Evil, but rather he shows how two groups of people, the Heywoods on one hand, and Henry Somerset , the Earl of Worchester, and his subjects on the other hand, find themselves by differing honorable convictions on opposite sides. Although on opposing sides, they fought each other for noble and altruistic reasons.

The Earl of Worchester, a catholic, and his followers had given their allegiance to the King and would stand by him to the bitter end. Hence St George is in the title, representing the red cross of England and the crown.

On the other hand, Richard Heywood and his father, believed their first allegiance was to their conscience and truth. For that reason they chose the side of Parliament and the Puritans. The archangel St. Michael stands for truth.

Although they were on opposite sides of this great civil war, when they met they respected each other since they saw a true man, a man of principle in the other. They were taking part in a war that was a collision of two imperfect causes (I think this phrase was used by MacDonald but I cannot locate the reference).

Indeed when Richard Heywood is captured inside Worchester’s Raglan Castle, The Earl now a Marquis offers him freedom if he would renounce his cause or even share his secret how he came to get into the castle. Richard declines and is sent to the dungeons.

After Richard is taken away the honorable Marquis says to himself:

“I doubt not the boy would tell everything rather than see his mare whipped. He’s a fine fellow, and it were a thousand pities he turned coward and gave in. But the affair is not mine–it is the King’s. Would to God the rascal were on our side! He’s the right old English breed.”

How Does This Speak to Me Today?

In Matthew 7:1-2 Jesus says:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”

The reason I am not to judge, is not because judgment must never happen, but rather because I am so poor at it. I am too ready to excuse myself and condemn others. I know nothing of the background, assumptions, or personal history that led to a particular action in others. If this is true of contemporaries I know reasonably well, it is much more true of historical figure in whose shoes I have never walked and whose motivations I could never fathom. Yet, as I get to know people from other eras through what they have written , that reading can be invaluable in finding out about myself, my own biases and about the uncritiqued assumptions that so plague my thinking.

Concluding Thoughts

We live in a time when the wholesale destruction of our history is taking place. Statues are torn down, graves desecrated, and places named after historical figures are being renamed. We act as if we  moderns are uniformly righteous and those that have gone before us are irredeemably evil. Even if that were true (we are too complex as human beings for that to be so clear cut) we would still be better off to leave our history intact and learn from our past both good and bad. It is better to have a view into the past from historical eyes than to leave the writing of history to the biased ideologues of today who desire us to think in a certain way.

Every war is a collision of two imperfect causes. Those on opposite sides may indeed be there for different, honorable reasons. I hope I continue to have the courage to respect that.

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: The Golan Heights and Tell Dan

Introduction

A source of the Jordan River in the Tell Dan Nature Preserve

As I stated previously, before I talk about my trip to the Golan Heights and Tell Dan, I want to talk about the situation we are all facing with regard to the Coronavirus. One of the most helpful things I have heard was a brief interview Ravi Zacharias gave from a hospital parking lot (he was in for a cancer treatment after a recent diagnosis).

He said essentially there are two extreme responses to avoid: great fear and indifference. I think he is right and that middle road is what I want to follow as I take precautions of “social distancing” and yet do not let fear rule my thinking. Here is the link to his approximately six minute interview by Ben Shapiro.

Ravi passed away a few days ago on May 19, 2020. Although I did not know him personally, I have read so many of his books and attended a course of his that I feel as if I do know him personally. Since, as it turns out, this interview was the last message from him that I heard, it is even more significant for me.

Tell Dan and the source of the Jordan

Attribution: Map Data © 2020 Mapa GISreal. Orion-Me. A view of the Tell Dan Nature Preserve

The land given to the tribe of Dan is very different from the country we have seen up to this point. Close to Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights, this country was lush as opposed to arid. We saw some of the streams that formed the source of the Jordan River.

The abundant water reminded me of Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17, a tree planted by streams of water.

A tree planted by stream of water. Psalm 1:3.

An Ancient Canaanite City

Ancient Canaanite arch predating the Roman arch

One of the remarkable finds in the archaeological excavations in this area was the discovery of a “Canaanite Arch” (shown above) which predates the Roman arch. 

A Canaanite Small City

One of the interesting excavation sites in this area was a Canaanite City (much smaller than what we consider a city today). Notice they do not have freestanding walls but rather back-filled walls. The stone work and foundations required for free-standing walls were apparently not known yet.

Walls supported by earth before free-standing walls could be constructed
A closeup of the fortifications
An altar

In the picture below, one sees the remnants of a frame that held the posts of the sedan chair or throne that would be carried to the outside of the city gate for the king to greet delegations, negotiate with neighboring rulers, or perhaps even hear complaints and charges from his own subjects.

This again verifies the historical accuracy of the Bible as the city gates play such an important role in the historical Old Testament accounts. Meeting strangers outside the city gates also likely served a strategic, military purpose: visitors could not spy out the defenses of the city itself since they were not allowed inside.

The platform for the king’s chair just outside the city gates

Personal Reflection

The past two weeks have seen the passing of two very important people in my life. My father passed away on May 10th, while Ravi Zacharias passed away on May 19th. They were very different people: my father was a private man who influenced his family, his friends and his faith community; Ravi Zacharias was an international speaker who profoundly challenged everyone who would listen (including me) to think carefully and consistently about their faith.

Different as they were, they both impressed me with their commitment to understanding the Bible rightly and living out a life that put trust in the Lord Christ. Seeing the picture of the tree in the middle of the pool at Tell Dan reminds me to do the same.

For the previous post in this series …
If you are looking for something to read during this time of isolation, my e-books (ePub format) are now also available from Walmart … here are the links:

The Halcyon Dislocation

The Battle for Halcyon

The Dragons of Sheol

Questioning Your Way to Faith

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: Golgotha and the Garden Tomb

Introduction

As, probably for the first time in my life, I celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday at home and not in the direct presence of other Christ-Followers, I reflect on the privilege it was to visit Israel and particularly Golgotha and the Garden Tomb only a couple of months ago, a short time before all travel was curtailed and then suspended. Easter is a time when I particularly reflect on the times and locales that were intimately bound together with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection: the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the Garden Tomb.

Golgotha

Golgotha site photographed in about 1870. With the light optimal so one can see the eye sockets of the skull in shadow.
Same location, February 2020. Earthquake damage has obscured some of the features.

We are not 100% sure of the Golgotha (Calvary) site used for Christ’s crucifixion. We know when the Romans crucified someone, they chose a very public place, near a main road or gate, so that it would have maximum impact on passers-by. This location, along with a nearby burial site seem like a likely spot, particularly if one looks at older photographs when the area was less built up and the sun, at the correct angle throws the skull’s eye sockets into shadow.

The Garden Tomb

Line-up by the garden tomb

Near the site of Golgotha one can also find burial sites. These sites have a rock-sealed chamber where the wrapped body is left to decay, so that the bones can be recovered later and stored with those of other family members in a family ossuary. Sometimes there is also a chamber where mourners can wait.

Personal Reflection

Having visited Israel, I cannot now read the accounts of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection without remembering places we visited.

One cannot get around it. The death and resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the gospel and the Christian message. One can disbelieve it, but one can’t legitimately explain it away.

At the end of the Garden Tomb visit, our group had a secluded patio to ourselves where we could sing about the resurrection. We sang one of those songs today as part of our internet Easter service. That song brought the garden musical worship experience flooding back.

Questions

  • With our coronavirus-imposed isolation, how has that affected your celebration of Easter?
  • How have you meaningfully connected with friends and family during Easter, a time when many of us would gather at someone’s home for a meal and family time?

I’d love to hear your answers as comments here or on Facebook.

For the previous post in this series …

A Writer's First Visit to the Holy Land: The Sea of Galilee

Introduction

Sunrise from our hotel on the Sea of Galilee

Before I talk about my trip to The Sea of Galilee, I want to talk about the situation we are all facing with regard to the Coronavirus. One of the most helpful things I have heard was a brief interview Ravi Zacharias gave from a hospital parking lot (he’s in for a cancer treatment after a recent diagnosis).

He said essentially there are two extreme responses to avoid: great fear and indifference. I think he is right and that middle road is what I want to follow as I take precautions of “social distancing” and yet do not let fear rule my thinking. Here is the link to his approximately six minute interview by Ben Shapiro.

Travelling Around The Sea of Galilee

Nazareth, Magdala (near Migdala) and Capernaum [Attribution: Map Data © 2020 Mapa GISreal. Orion-M]

We left Nazareth and Mount Precipice to our hotel on the Sea of Galilee. (Capernaum and Magdala (near Migdala), which I will talk about presently are shown as ellipses on the above map). I was blessed to have an east-looking balcony to capture a beautiful sunrise from my room.

Our day began with a boat ride across the sea and for such a small lake, it had a fair chop. I guess the lake rift valley, surrounded by high terrain. means the surrounding mountains/hills act like a funnel and when the wind changes direction, it can whip up this relatively small lake significantly (reminiscent of the gospels).

Travelling up the west coast of The Sea of Galilee
A view of the rugged eastern shore

Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount

Mount of the Beatitudes

Capernaum

Capernaum, the site of much of Jesus’ ministry, has a church and significant excavations and restorations of a beautiful synagogue. This synagogue dates to a time after the first century, as indicated by the imported light-colored stone, but in a corner, below the newer synagogue, one can find the remnants of the older synagogue that Jesus attended.

The older synagogue from the time of Jesus in Capernaum

Peter/s house in Capernaum has been covered by a church, and the excavation is shown here.

A “homeless Jesus” sculpture in Capernaum

I learned that since the Galilee area is volcanic in origin, the older building from the time of Jesus consist of black basalt. Later when Capernaum became more prosperous because of a Roman road, the newer buildings used imported white or light-colored stone.

Magdala, Home of Mary Magdalene

The church at Magdala

We finished our day at a beautiful church at Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene. There is a wonderfully restored synagogue from the time of Jesus at this site. Magdala is at the entrance of a pass that is the likely route Jesus would have walked from Nazareth to The Sea of Galilee, so almost certainly He would have used this synagogue after his journey.

Personal Reflection

At the Mount of the Beatitudes, I had the chance to site on a bench in the beautiful church gardens and reflect on Matthew 4:23-5:12.As I reflected on this passage, I focused especially on Matthew 5:7 ” blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”

It struck me, when our hearts are right, that genuine mercy is always an option to the penalties specified in the Mosaic Law. In Matthew 1:19 when Joseph realized that Mary was pregnant before they had come together, it is written of him: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her [a betrothal had the same force as a marriage and required a divorce] quietly.”

Presumably, in that society, Joseph could have publicly shamed her or even demanded she be stoned (John 8:3-11). He did not because, as the wronged party, mercy was always an option.

Being merciful is always an option.

I and many others have sometimes wondered if the God of the Old Testament has the same character as the Father God of the New Testament. We know from our teaching that he does. The fact that mercy is always an option, if the people have the heart for it, helps me to look at the Old Testament in a new light.

Questions

  • If you have a particular passage in the Old Testament that troubles you, how might “mercy is always an option” help you understand it?
  • One of the questions put to us at the Mount of Beatitudes: “For you, what is the hardest part of being a Jesus follower today?” How would you answer that question?

I’d love to hear your answers as comments here or on Facebook.

For the previous post in this series …
If you are looking for something to read during this time of isolation, my e-books (ePub format) are now also available from Walmart … here are the links:

The Halcyon Dislocation

The Battle for Halcyon

The Dragons of Sheol

Questioning Your Way to Faith

Sunrise over The Sea of Galilee

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: Nazareth Village and Mount Precipice

Our route so far: we traveled up the coast from Joppa to Caesarea Maritima, then over to Mount Carmel and finally to Nazareth (see the three ellipses).

Our Route So Far

We began our journey traveling up the coast from Joppa (south Tel Aviv) to Caesarea Maritima. We then headed inland along the the Valley of Yizre’el (also called the plain of Megiddo as in Armageddon).

One of the difficulties in reading maps of the Holy Land is that every place seems to have several different names, each with different spellings as the name gets transliterated into different alphabets.

In the case of the Yizre’el Valley/Plain of Megiddo, both Yizre’el and Megiddo were (and I suppose are) important towns in the valley and it makes sense for inhabitants to name it after the nearest important town in the valley. You’ll see the plaque on Mount Precipice near Nazareth called  the Yizrael Valley, yet its the same valley we saw from Mount Carmel.

Nazareth Village

The wine press at Nazareth Village.

Nazareth is a small city of about 77,000 surrounding the village area of  the Nazareth of two thousand years ago. The original village would have been located close to the springs that made life in this arid place possible.

We visited Nazareth Village, a reconstructed village from the time of Jesus on an archaeological site that used to be a terraced farm two thousand years ago. In the picture above, one can see the wine press itself, a flat, slightly sloped area where the grapes were pressed barefoot and then a channel to a deeper hollow where the grape juice was collected.

A closeup of the flat portion, the channel, and the collection basin of the wine press.

The History of Nazareth Village: “Extensive archeological [sic] excavations show that this remarkably preserved site is home to an over 2000 year old wine press cut into the bedrock. The remains of a vineyard, watchtowers, terraces, spring fed irrigation system and stone quarries tell the story of a working farm area just outside of the original old Nazareth. The hillside was preserved and untouched on the grounds of the Nazareth Hospital, established in 1906 by the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society (EMMS), now called the Nazareth Trust.

A vineyard watch tower at Nazareth Village (Read the Parable of the Tenants … Matthew 21: 33-46).
A reconstruction of an ancient olive press. The stones on the lever beam were successively engaged to recover three fractions of olive oil from the olive mash. The earliest fraction was purest and most precious.
Scrolls in the reconstructed synagogue at Nazareth Village.
Ceiling beams and ceiling cover of reconstructed dwellings following the ancient pattern. This is the type of roof that would have allowed loyal friends to lower their crippled companion into the presence of Jesus (Mark 2:1-12).

Mount Precipice

The Valley of Yizre’el (Plain of Megiddo) from Mount Precipice, near Nazareth.
According to the Gospel of Luke (Luke 4:16-30) “And they rose up and drove him out of town and brought him to the brow of the hill … But passing through their midst he went away.”

Personal Reflection

As I reflected on this passage in Luke chapter 4, after having just finished studying the life of Elijah and the confrontation on Mount Carmel, it struck me for the first time that Jezebel was a Sidonian (1 Kings 16: 31).

Yet even in the culture of that time in which the family members and people of Jezebel should be held equally culpable for Jezebel’s deeds, our gracious God sends Elijah to look after a Sidonian widow and her son during a time of extreme drought.

Confirmation Bias

My trip to Israel was much more than confronting and learning about history; it was also a time of personal learning and reflection. On Mount Precipice as we were thinking about the Luke 4:14-30, we were asked to consider the question:

If someone were to follow you for a week and watch how you live, what would they say about who you believe Jesus to be?”

As a scientist, I worry a lot about bias, in particular confirmation bias, the observation that if a person believes a theory or hypothesis to be true, then they leap with glee on any datum that supports their point of view,  but likely relinquish troublesome data points to the “To Be Explained” file with a sigh saying “I’ll have to give those data points more thought to see if I can see how they fit in.”

So “Whom should you ask?” I guess I would say ask someone else who does follow me around and then tell me what they see so that we’ll both know!

Likely there would be some indicators that I think Jesus is who He said He was, mixed in with many attitudes and behaviors that say the opposite (unfortunately).

Questions

  • If you have ever been to the Holy Land, what thought or experience has stayed with you the longest?
  • Did your visit to the Holy Land pique your interest in spiritual things or diminish your interest?
  • If you haven’t gone to the Holy Land yet, and were given a chance to go, what would you hope to see/learn/experience?

I’d love to hear your answers as comments here or on Facebook.

For the previous post in this series …
If you are in Mississauga and interested in checking out Peter’s futuristic fiction … here is the link to his books in the Mississauga Library.
Mount Tabor as seen from Mount Precipice.

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: Mount Carmel

The statue of Elijah at the Deir Al-Mukhraqa Carmelite Monastery on Mount Carmel, the likely site for the contest between Elijah and the four hundred prophets of Baal.

Mount Carmel, Elijah, and the Prophets of Baal

Elijah served as prophet in one of the darkest chapters in the history of Israel. A weak and wicked king, Ahab had married Jezebel, a Sidonian. Jezebel ran the kingdom in Ahab’s name. She killed, likely with the complicity of the prophets of Baal, pretty well all of the prophets of Yahweh.

We read in 1 Kings 18:3-4 (almost as a footnote or side note) that Jezebel had cut off the prophets of the LORD:

And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over his household. (now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly, and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets, and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them bread and water.)

Many will likely remember this narrative well, where Elijah challenges the 400 prophets of Baal and the 450 prophets of Asherah that ate at Jezebel’s table to a contest on Mount Carmel. Ahab was urged by Elijah to:

“Send and gather all of Israel at Mount Carmel …” (1 Kings 18:19).

Having been on top of Mount Carmel, it is easy to see how that could have happened. One has the rocky and steep rounded mountain open to the vast Migiddo plain. The leaders of Israel could readily climb the mountain side to be near the summit to see the priests performing their worship ceremony. Yet the summit is so exposed that even people some distance away in the plain could seen the culmination of the sign with fire from the sky consuming Elijah’s offering.

A view of the plain of Megiddo

A Troublesome Question

A troublesome question for me (perhaps not for others) would be “where is the grace in this passage towards the prophets of Baal?”

Having seen the character of Jesus in the New Testament and recognizing that this is also the most complete representation of the God’s character in the Old Testament, I would expect to find some evidence of His desire for grace, repentance, and forgiveness.

For me (and I recognize there is no explicit evidence for this in the passage) I think one of the reasons the Baal worship and the taunting by Elijah went on for such a long time, was to afford some of the prophets of Baal an opportunity to realize that they were serving a false god and repent. There is no evidence they did so, but God’s willingness to accept repentance seems almost boundless.

Even Ahab, after all the terrible things he did and allowed to be done, had his repentance accepted (1 Kings 21:27-29). His repentance only temporarily delayed the deportation of Israel, since the rot was too deep, but it delayed Judgment Day for a time.

Rocks on the side of Mount Carmel present an interesting conundrum from a military perspective. The plain of Megiddo seems to be ideal terrain for tanks (or chariots) while the surrounding mountains with all their rocks would be nigh impassible for any but infantry on foot.

Personal Reflection

The teaching on this epic historical narrative on Elijah left me with the challenge: “How can I apply this to my life. What should I take a stand on, even if it goes against what many around me believe?

As I pondered these questions, it occurred to me how deeply our presumption of relativism in general and Political Correctness in particular has colored our view of every question. Indeed, it seems making pronouncements of any kind (except pronouncing that one shouldn’t make pronouncements) is seen as a statement of opinion or fashion and can only be valid for ourselves and has no universal applicability. Indeed to insist otherwise is seen as bigotry.

In our culture of Political Correctness, it seems that making a statement that ideas, attitudes, and behaviors have genuine consequences is seen by many as capricious and egregious as insisting that everyone must only wear black.

This state of affairs makes application of the Elijah passage quite difficult. As a writer of fiction, I am constantly being told by my writer’s group and editor “show don’t tell!”

For our culture, telling, or making pronouncements is an anathema and keeps the speaker from being heard. If, however, I can construct a fictional character so real as to be believable, let them have ideas, train their own attitudes, and then makes choices that have consequences, then perhaps the reader will see the connections.

This has been a spur to me to strive to be a better writer, avoiding the preaching of sermons (telling) in my books, but letting the reader discover the connections as the story unfolds. I hope I can continue to grow as a writer and do it.

For the previous post in this series …
If you are interested in checking out Peter’s futuristic fiction … here is the link to his books on Chapters/Indigo.

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: Caesarea Maritima

The Mediterranean seen through an arch of the aqueduct at Caesarea Maritima.

Walking from Joppa to Caesarea

In the previous post in the Holy Land series, I spoke about Joppa and an appeal by Cornelius, a Roman centurion situated Caesarea, for Peter to visit him. Peter traveled to the city of Caesarea (or more precisely Caesarea Maritima to distinguish it from other cities in the Roman Empire honoring Caesar – you may remember for example Caesarea Philippi), a distance of approximately 33.6 miles (63 km). Our guide spoke of an average walking distance of 15 km per day, so that would suggest it would be a four-day journey one way.

I think the 15 km/day walk was a leisurely trek that took into account the penchant of travelers of that day to be news-bearers as well as news-acquirers as they stopped along the way.

Cornelius’ servants were legionaries. The Roman army had three walking paces with full kit that had to be achieved by every legionary. Stragglers were unacceptable because they divided the army and put it at risk.

  • A standard march: regular step or military pace – about 18.4 miles (29.6 km) per day with full kit
  • Faster step: about 22.1 miles (35.5 km) per day
  • Forced march: up to 30 miles (48 km) per day

Thus given that Cornelius’ emissaries were likely traveling without full kit and the distance is easily achievable given legion requirements, the New Testament account of roughly four days round trip is easily achievable.

Herod the Great

A view of the harbor destroyed by earthquake and tsunami. Much of the coastline has been altered by these calamities and the jetties are submerged.
Cormorants roosting on ruins close to the sea in Caesarea.

Caesarea Maritima was built by Herod the Great over about twelve years (22-10 BC). He was an audacious builder and we will encounter his work again, in the temple renovation in Jerusalem, at Masada, and at the city of Herodion (his burial place).

Herod’s construction was impressive: he built a breakwater and jetties to achieve a deep water port on a coast with no natural protection. he also built a Roman city complete with theater, hippodrome (horse and chariot races), and an amphitheater (gladiatorial events) as well as Roman baths, statues and temples. It became a major Roman base in the area, consistent with the New Testament teaching.

Paul also also was imprisoned in Caesarea, the governor’s residence (Acts 23:23-Acts 26:32) and made his defense before King Agrippa there.

Alas, Caesarea was built in an earthquake zone and was severely damaged by quake an tsunami sometime in the 1st and 2nd century. By the 6th century, the damage was so great the harbor was unusable. This can be seen from the pictures.

Personal Reflection

A replica of a stone found at this location bearing an inscription referring to Pontius Pilate.
The description accompanying the Pilate stone.

Caesarea, like so many sites in the Holy Land is replete with archaeological evidence that complements and corroborates the data historical data found in the New and Old Testaments.

As a scientist who has spent a good fraction of his life conducting research in chemistry and physics, I am well acquainted with the careful distinction that science makes between data and explanatory interpretations of the data (by that I mean hypotheses, theories, and laws).

One is taught that data is to be taken as correct and true and cannot be dismissed lightly. Even if one suspects an error was made in a measurement, one does not delete the offending datum, but one remeasures it and keeps both old and new.

In contrast, one works to disprove hypotheses in order to avoid confirmation bias.

However, to an outsider, it seems these rules are abandoned when it comes to the Old and New Testament. Indeed it seems to me they are often treated not like data but hypotheses and so analysts feel free obligated to disprove their reliability.

 

Yet coming to the Holy Land, one finds hundreds, likely thousands of pieces of evidence: places, people, landmarks etc. which are referenced in the Bible.

Both Old and New Testaments are ancient documents with an excellent documentary pedigree. Yet it seems, these documents are often put on trial and assumed to be fictitious until proven otherwise.

For me this is reminiscent of some of the shoddy police work one sometimes reads about, where an officer is so convinced that a defendant is guilty that he automatically adds any witness with a potential alibi for the defendant to the list of co-conspirators.

This process is helpful if one is only interested in getting convictions, but not if one is  looking for the truth. In the same way, if one treats the biblical texts as hypotheses and not as data, then one is not giving the texts the recognition they deserve.

If you are interested in checking out Peter’s futuristic fiction … here is the link to his Amazon Author page.
For the previous post in this series …
Remains of the aqueduct that once brought water to Caesarea.

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: The Port of Joppa

Introduction

As a writer and a Christ-Follower visiting the Holy Land for the first time, it became apparent my trip cannot help but change the way I read the bible, look at history, and see one of the places that formed, in large measure, the civilization in which I live.

As someone pointed out, it is like going from a black and white picture to a three-dimensional color picture: the details are essentially the same but are seen in a wholly new way.

The bell tower of Saint Peter’s Church as seen from the steps of Kikar Kedumin Street in Joppa
A closer view of Saint Peter’s Church and bell tower.

Joppa

Joppa (also called Jaffa, Japho or Yapo) has been the port for Jerusalem from well-before King David. According to Wikipedia its use as a port dates back to 1800 BC.

It was captured from the Philistines in the time of David and used by Solomon as the port for the building materials used for the first temple  (2 Chronicles 2:16).

I saw Joppa on a windy day. The architecture is from different periods, given that port has been taken and retaken. It is an interesting mix of older architecture from successive periods standing along side modern art.

The new in the midst of the old. Modern iconic art in Old Joppa.
Although the original house of Simon the Tanner has almost certainly been destroyed, it would have been a house similar to this one, overlooking the shore. The flat roof was for guests and even though it is winter one can see that the vines on the roof, in summer, would have provided shade in the heat of the day.

Personal Reflection

In Acts Chapter 8 and 9 (Acts 8:36-9:48) we read the account of Peter and Cornelius. The latter, as a God-fearing centurion in Caesarea, after a vision, sends for Simon Peter in Joppa. Peter, himself, as an observant Jew needs convincing through a separate vision, that he ought to make the long journey to Caesarea and enter the house of a gentile. Peter does so and we have the first occurrence of the grace of the Christian message being extended beyond a Jewish audience in the New Testament.

As I read this, and I pondered Peter’s dilemma in being told, against his own background and inclination, to extend the gift he and his people had received through Christ, to not only others, but members of the oppressor’s class, it made me reflect on my own time and what it might mean.

We live in contradictory times. In school we are taught that we are biochemical machines that are the product of billions of years of mutation and selection, with bits of genetic code (genes) acting like puppet masters directing our every step to maximize our self preservation and reproduction so that our particular gene sequence comes to dominate the pool.

At the same time, in the same schools, we are also taught the contradictory assertion that we are held responsible for the past acts of our immediate ancestors, our clan, and our tribe even though we were not even alive to participate in the decisions (whether good or bad) that were made on our behalf.

For me the teaching in Acts 9 brings harmony to our modern contradiction. We owe duty and allegiance to family, clan, and tribe. However, Acts 9 teaches us to look beyond with a duty to those outside since they are also our brothers.

Acts 9 teaches me to care for, and do my duty toward family, clan, and tribe. Yet life is not a zero sum game where we only win, by pushing outsiders down, but rather, in the end, there are no outsiders.

Looking north toward Tel Aviv from Old Joppa. The little dots in the water are surfers.
A zoom lens closeup of the surfers waiting for the next big wave, north of Old Joppa.

Tough Questions from a Reader of THE DRAGONS OF SHEOL

It’s no bother …

Accessibility to one’s readers is one of the benefits of being an indie author. So it’s no bother at all when someone sends me a question. Indeed it is a special delight.

I asked permission to share this conversation with my blog readers and it was granted providing I maintained the reader’s anonymity. I propose to do so by using the Latin name Aulaire (means well-spoken) for the reader.

The tough questions

Aulaire, you do ask me the toughest questions! Like you these situations you mention make me ask: “How can this be?”

Let me begin with a disclaimer: these are tough questions facing Christians (and for others too). I have some partial answers, but if we ever find ourselves in these these troubling situations, we will find out pretty quickly how hollow and incomplete my answers are.

Aulaire, on describing what troubled her about some passages, wrote:

“I find even in the old testament when God had Joshua going into the promised land [and] King David fighting nations opposed to Israel, how they slaughtered & killed whole people groups, even the women and children.”

1. We know that God is omnipotent. We often don’t realize, however, that omnipotence is inherently self-limiting. For example, when I write a book, I am, humanly speaking, omnipotent. I can write a romance, a book on economics etc. Indeed, I could write about anything at all. But as soon as I write my first line (“Dave Schuster sat in the Chancellor’s office …”), I have already limited my own “omnipotence” significantly. Many possible books are now ruled out. I believe God is in the same boat. As soon as He begins creating, He is limiting his own omnipotence. Thus Aslan (from Lewis’ Narnia books) growls when it is suggested the Emperor-Over-The-Sea not follow His own rules. This implies, particularly when sinful people are deciding for Him, that often God is left, in a given situation, with only bad choices on His plate. I believe He will, play His poor cards as well as He can at the time and still make it right when the story is complete, but in a given situation He may, because of our deal, only have poor cards to play (I know, Aulaire, you’re reading The Dragons of Sheol. You might check out the chapter on Al and Floyd’s discussion of God as a Bridge Partner).

2. I think genuine mercy was always an alternative to Old Testament law punishments. Joseph, as he sought to apply the Old Testament Law, could have had Mary stoned for adultery (betrothal had the weight of marriage) but he had a right to a merciful option and “resolved to put her away quietly.” The trouble in Joshua and David’s time: Israelites, acting like the people around them, had no problem exterminating their enemies. They sometimes showed a false mercy by sparing the bits they wanted (e.g. the cattle) and God condemned this self-serving, false mercy.

3. Jesus did not spare Himself our injustice. When God wrote Himself into our story, He took on all the bad bits. He grew up in a poor family in a subjugated nation.  He was thought an illegitimate child of sin. His father likely died when He was young. He was hated by his own people, and of course, He was crucified unjustly at the young age of 33. God didn’t spare Himself, so how can I complain?

4. We must not assume that if actions occur in the Old Testament without comment that God approves.

Aulaire, speaking of historical events that bother her, wrote:

“And also allowing Hitler to continue as long as he did to exterminate the Jewish people.”

Fifty-two million people lost their lives in WWII. Given my background I had friends and relatives who lived through this terrible time from inside the Third Reich. I have seen the scars it has left on their lives. Asking when God should intervene to override our foolish and downright evil decisions is a difficult question. I think we almost all agree, we wouldn’t want to lose our God-image-bearer humanity by having Him control all of our decisions. So where would we have Him draw the line? I don’t know. I trust He knows best.

A mentor of mine used to draw a dot with an arrow going to the right. He would say the dot is my life now; the arrow is eternity. I trust God will use eternity to make things right.

I want to end again with the disclaimer: I don’t really have a completely satisfying answer (to me and likely to anyone else) on your questions, Aulaire. This is the best I have. Others likely could say much more.

Peter

Some additional material from QUESTIONING YOUR WAY TO FAITH

Questioning Your Way to Faith is a short book that has two friends talk respectfully about some of life’s most difficult questions. I hope this chapter excerpt is of some value as it touches on the questions Aulaire raised. 

Chapter 5 The Problem of Evil Committed by Christians

Around five o’clock, Al said “How about supper?”

 “Why don’t you clean the fish,” responded Floyd, “and I’ll get the fire started.

“Sure thing; sea bass always tastes best when it’s fresh.”

Floyd nodded and headed to a sheltered dell beneath a rocky ridge to a small fire pit.

They had only kept one of the sea bass. Al began cleaning the fish. He heard twigs snapping.

Floyd reappeared. “Do you have any matches?”

“In the second drawer of my tackle box.” Al went back to his task. He deftly gutted the big sea bass and cut four generous fillets. He buried the head and entrails and carried the four fillets in the frying pan along with his knapsack into the dell. Floyd had a small fire going.

Al set the skillet down and unpacked a small grill, placing it between two rocks.

“You’ve obviously done this before,” said Floyd.

“This is one of my favorite things!” Al pulled out the small lunch cooler and produced a package of potato salad from the cafeteria.”

“What would you like to drink, Floyd?”

“What do you have?”

“My favorite wheat beer from Benson’s Microbrewery or cola?

“I’ll take the beer.”

Al flipped the fillets with his hunting knife and a freshly cut stick. He added salt and looked critically at the fillets. “I think they’re done.”

“Good. I’m starving.”

“Can you get the two plates in my knapsack, Floyd?”

“Sure. Boy I don’t normally like fish but that smells great.”

“There’s something special about fresh fish. Here, help yourself to the potato salad.”

They ate in silence. Then Al rinsed off their plates and the frying pan in the sea. When he came back, Floyd was nursing his beer and leaning back against a driftwood tree trunk looking up at the sky. “This is the life Al.”

“I couldn’t agree more, Floyd.” The evening sun tinged the sea orange.

The beauty of the sea and the sky is almost a meal on its own.

Floyd was silent for a while. Al looked at him. His friend seemed to be thinking.

Floyd cleared his throat.

“Al, going back to our previous discussion, your argument about God being good simply doesn’t add up. How many wars have been fought over religion? I remember reading that in the Thirty Years’ War, a Christian religious war between Catholics and Protestants, about two thirds of the population of what is now Germany was killed. The Philippines were converted to Catholicism from Islam by the sword, all except one island, which the Spanish couldn’t easily land on in force. Look how the Jews have been treated by Christians. How can God be the moral force you make Him out to be if so much evil is done by His followers in His name? Your argument would be much more convincing if Christians were actually a force for good rather than evil.”

“Floyd, in a great many ways you’re right. Much evil has been done in the name of Christianity. In fact G. K. Chesterton and others as I recall, made the point that the best argument against Christianity is Christians.

“Still I don’t think the argument against Christianity on this ground is as strong as you make it,” continued Al. “First of all, if you look at nations and peoples before the French Revolution, every one of them was religious. Therefore it’s easy to look at a multidimensional problem and say they committed evil because of religion. And what about politics? What about greed? What about power? Didn’t these play a role?”

“I’m sure they did. But the Thirty Years’ War was ostensibly a religious war wasn’t it?” asked Floyd.

“That’s exactly my point,” said Al. We pick from a host of causes and label it a ‘religious war’ when we could just as easily call it a war for political power and control. Have we stopped fighting just because we’re less religious?”

“I suppose not,” conceded Floyd.

“We haven’t,” said Al. “If we focus on governments that are openly antagonistic to religion, have they done any better? The French Revolution—after proclaiming the noble sentiments of equality, fraternity, and freedom—moved quickly on to the Reign of Terror, and then on to Napoleon’s long war to dominate Europe.

“Have the Communists done better? They’re avowedly atheistic and have killed a great many people in the pogroms and mass exterminations of dissenters. I think the root problem is not really religion, but a lack of respect for Freedom of Religion. If we respected the rights of people to make up their own minds without coercion, then we wouldn’t do these things. But all governments prefer a homogeneous populace. So there’s a tendency to make us all the same because then we’re easier to manage and govern. Coercion can just as easily be secular as religious.”

“How do those excesses excuse the Christians?” asked Floyd.

“They don’t, but I think people who raise this issue are overlooking an important fact.”

“What’s that?” asked Floyd.

“If you’re a power hungry tyrant, and you want your followers to join in a cause that’s dear to your heart, it will never do to say ‘Let’s beat up on our neighbors. I know they pose no threat. They haven’t done us a stitch of harm, but let’s kill them, take their land, and enslave them. Come on—it’ll be fun.’”

“Go on.”

“The vast majority of people are too fair minded to risk their own lives, and the lives of their children on such an escapade. But if the war monger builds a case that the neighbor poses a threat and will attack us, take our freedom, our children and our lands, then the call to war becomes much more credible. The appeal to religion has worked for tyrants because religion was so valuable to the people. It gave meaning to their lives. And so by having that threatened, one could bend them to commit atrocities because in their fear they succumbed to the argument that the end justified the means. Today with the decline of religion in the west, we make the same calls using our new values. The threat is that others will impose their unwanted religion on us, take away our wealth, our children and our freedoms. The same story works. The same people are pulling the strings. Still religion is not seen as being as valuable as it once was, so it’s no longer used to justify evil. But other things are.”

“Still that doesn’t excuse them,” said Floyd.

“No not at all. If you follow the teaching of Jesus, the end never justified the means. That is a great trap. What makes things worse is that our evil nature always makes it seem as if the injustices foisted on us are grievous beyond words. And yet when we do the very same thing to someone else, it was a justifiable necessity on our part. We are hopelessly unsymmetrical in our evaluations.”

“Still why did they fall for it?” asked Floyd.

“I don’t know. The New Testament teaches us to regard others—even those who think differently from us—as brothers. We are to return good for evil and love our enemies. The end never justifies the means—yet Christians still can be moved to do things that go against their fundamental teachings. Why do they do it? Why do I do it? I wish I knew. I’m far from perfect, and so are they, I guess.”

“Floyd, I think you and I could agree on this question a good deal more if you substituted “religion” for “God” and “Christians.”

“Al, I don’t see how that will help you. Isn’t Christianity a religion?”

“That depends on the definition. If you think of religion as the institutions, the laws, the regulations that are supposed to bring us close to God, then Christianity, as far as I can tell from reading the New Testament, was never meant to be a religion. Indeed, in the Gospels, Jesus’ strongest words of censure were directed toward the Pharisees, the religious heavyweights of his day, and he accused them of keeping people who were truly seeking God away from God by loading them down with regulations, duties, and obligations which were the constructs of men and not of God. Christianity is much more about meeting a person, than following a program.”

“Okay you’re trying to draw a distinction between Christianity and religions. I’ve heard that before,” said Floyd.

“Floyd, getting back to the question about ‘religion being the root of all evil…’”

“I never said all evil, but I believe Christians are responsible for much of the evil in our world.”

“I can see why that behavior should bother me since I see clearly how they do not conform to the behavior God has set out for Christians. But why does it bother you? At the risk of being repetitive, if all people, including Christians, are the product of millions of years of evolution, through which we have been conditioned by our genes to eliminate competition and reproduce as prolifically as possible, then wouldn’t we expect the killing off of competition to be the most natural of activities? Would rape and pillaging not be entirely consistent with that conditioning? At their worst are these “Christians” from the Thirty Years’ War not acting exactly as one would have predicted based on evolution? So why the surprise? Why the expectation that they would be better?

“It seems to me the anomaly—from your point of view—would be those people who rise above this ‘ethic’ of me and mine first.”

“You have a point,” said Floyd. He shook himself and looked around. “It’s getting dark. We should be heading back. Will you put out the fire while I collect up our gear?”