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A Nativity Sham

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Jesus was not born in a stable, says theologian

Rev Ian Paul writes on his blog that birth of Christ story is based on a misreading of the New Testament

A 15th century nativity scene by Paolo Schiavo. Photograph: Philadelphia Museum of Art/Corbis

The birth of Christ may be the most famous Bible story of all, reprised annually in nativity scenes across the world each Christmas: Jesus was born in a stable, because there was no room at the inn. But evangelical scholar Rev Ian Paul has argued that the entire story may be based on a misreading of the New Testament, reviving an ancient theory that Jesus was not, in fact, born in a stable.

“I am sorry to spoil your preparations for Christmas before the Christmas lights have even gone up,” Rev Paul, a theologian and former Dean of Studies at St John’s theological college, Nottingham, has written on his personal blog. “But Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case.”

Paul argues that the Greek word, kataluma, usually translated as “Inn” was in fact used for a reception room in a private house – the same term is used to describe the “upper room” where Jesus and his disciples ate the last supper. An entirely different word, pandocheion, is used to describe an “Inn” or any other place where strangers are welcomed.

Even if there were an inn in Bethlehem, Paul argues, Joseph and Mary would not have been staying there. The only reason for them to travel to Bethlehem for the census was because he had family there and if he did, the customs of first-century Palestine required him to stay with relatives and not with strangers.

In that context, the kataluma where he stayed would not have been an Inn, but a guest room in the house of the family where Joseph and Mary were staying. That could very well have been full with other relatives who had arrived before them.

“The actual design of Palestinian homes (even to the present day) makes sense of the whole story,” Paul writes. “Most families would live in a single-room house, with a lower compartment for animals to be brought in at night, and either a room at the back for visitors, or space on the roof. The family living area would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with straw, in the living area, where the animals would feed.”

So Jesus would not have been born in a detached stable, but in the lower floor of a peasant house, where the animals were kept.

This interpretation is hardly new. The earliest scholar to put it forward was the Spaniard Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas, in 1584. He was denounced to the inquisition for his pains and reprimanded by them, though not actually burned, tortured or imprisoned as might have happened to heretics.

Since then the theory has repeatedly been raised by New Testament greek scholars aware that kataluma does not actually mean “Inn”. Paul himself first wrote about the misinterpretation of the word in 2013, and re-posted his theory this year “because I have been struck again how often the message of Christmas is summed up as ‘Jesus was born in a stable’, both within and beyond the church.”

For Paul, the significance of his reinterpretation of the story is that it undercuts the idea that what made Jesus remarkable was that he was born to humble, outcast parents. “In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the manger, needing our sympathy. He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention,” he writes.

“This should fundamentally change our approach to enacting and preaching on the nativity.”

Paul says that what is extraordinary about the birth of Jesus is that it shows God shifting from the divine to the human. If that happened in a crowded family home, the message is preserved. If it happened in an isolated stable, “that just shows that the descent was from a respected human to a disrespected human,” he argues.

Source: TheGuardian

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Learning a New Language

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Learning A New Language Changes Brain Network Structurally And Functionally

Most of us have wondered questions like what impact does learning a new language has on the brain or is it possible for anyone to learn a new language efficiently? Most people agree that learning a new language positively impacts the brain and it is not something that anyone can do. Turns out it is correct.

Researchers at the Pennsylvania State University have described how learning a new language is beneficial for your brain. The study shows that learning a new language can change the brain network both structurally and functionally.

“Learning and practicing something, for instance a second language, strengthens the brain,” said Ping Li, professor of psychology, linguistics and information sciences and technology. “Like physical exercise, the more you use specific areas of your brain, the more it grows and gets stronger.”

Source: Sparkonit Read more

Will religion ever disappear?

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The lighting of a cross during the Christian Los Escobazos Festival in Spain, celebrating the conception of the Virgin Mary (Getty Images)

Atheism is on the rise around the world, so does that mean spirituality will soon be a thing of the past? Rachel Nuwer discovers that the answer is far from simple.

A growing number of people, millions worldwide, say they believe that life definitively ends at death – that there is no God, no afterlife and no divine plan. And it’s an outlook that could be gaining momentum – despite its lack of cheer. In some countries, openly acknowledged atheism has never been more popular.

“There’s absolutely more atheists around today than ever before, both in sheer numbers and as a percentage of humanity,” says Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and author of Living the Secular Life. According to a Gallup International survey of more than 50,000 people in 57 countries, the number of individuals claiming to be religious fell from 77% to 68% between 2005 and 2011, while those who self-identified as atheist rose by 3% – bringing the world’s estimated proportion of adamant non-believers to 13%.

While atheists certainly are not the majority, could it be that these figures are a harbinger of things to come? Assuming global trends continue might religion someday disappear entirely?

It’s impossible to predict the future, but examining what we know about religion – including why it evolved in the first place, and why some people chose to believe in it and others abandon it – can hint at how our relationship with the divine might play out in decades or centuries to come.

A priest in Ukraine holds a cross in the ruins of Kiev’s Trade Union building earlier this year (Getty Images)

Scholars are still trying to tease out the complex factors that drive an individual or a nation toward atheism, but there are a few commonalities. Part of religion’s appeal is that it offers security in an uncertain world. So not surprisingly, nations that report the highest rates of atheism tend to be those that provide their citizens with relatively high economic, political and existential stability. “Security in society seems to diminish religious belief,” Zuckerman says. Capitalism, access to technology and education also seems to correlate with a corrosion of religiosity in some populations, he adds.

Crisis of faith

Japan, the UK, Canada, South Korea, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, France and Uruguay (where the majority of citizens have European roots) are all places where religion was important just a century or so ago, but that now report some of the lowest belief rates in the world. These countries feature strong educational and social security systems, low inequality and are all relatively wealthy. “Basically, people are less scared about what might befall them,” says Quentin Atkinson, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Yemeni girls show their hands decorated with traditional henna designs as they celebrate the end of Ramadan (Getty Images)

Yet decline in belief seems to be occurring across the board, including in places that are still strongly religious, such as Brazil, Jamaica and Ireland. “Very few societies are more religious today than they were 40 or 50 years ago,” Zuckerman says. “The only exception might be Iran, but that’s tricky because secular people might be hiding their beliefs.”

The US, too, is an outlier in that it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but also has high rates of religiosity. (Still, a recent Pew survey revealed that, between 2007 and 2012, the proportion of Americans who said they are atheist rose from 1.6% to 2.4%.)

Decline, however, does not mean disappearance, says Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and author of Big Gods. Existential security is more fallible than it seems. In a moment, everything can change: a drunk driver can kill a loved one; a tornado can destroy a town; a doctor can issue a terminal diagnosis. As climate change wreaks havoc on the world in coming years and natural resources potentially grow scarce, then suffering and hardship could fuel religiosity. “People want to escape suffering, but if they can’t get out of it, they want to find meaning,” Norenzayan says. “For some reason, religion seems to give meaning to suffering – much more so than any secular ideal or belief that we know of.”

In the Philippines, survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan march during a religious procession (Getty Images)

This phenomenon constantly plays out in hospital rooms and disaster zones around the world. In 2011, for example, a massive earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand – a highly secular society. There was a sudden spike of religiosity in the people who experienced that event, but the rest of the country remained as secular as ever. While exceptions to this rule do exist – religion in Japan plummeted following World War II, for instance – for the most part, Zuckerman says, we adhere by the Christchurch model. “If experiencing something terrible caused all people to become atheists, then we’d all be atheists,” he says.

The mind of god

But even if the world’s troubles were miraculously solved and we all led peaceful lives in equity, religion would probably still be around. This is because a god-shaped hole seems to exist in our species’ neuropsychology, thanks to a quirk of our evolution.

Source: BBCNews Read more

Liberia: The nation founded by the USA

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GlobalConsilium

liberia-26910_1280 copy

Liberia had not been in the international spotlight since its two deadly civil wars left profound human and economic damages between the late 90’s, and up until the year 2003, when the second Liberian civil war finally came to an end. Lately, however, the small West African nation has had all eyes on its ferocious fight against Ebola, which has claimed the lives of thousands and has threatened to de-stabilize the political and economic outlook of the already impoverished and fragile nation.

While Liberia battles to stay away from the eye of the storm, not surprisingly the international community has been asked to step in to help solve the emergency. However, among Liberians and other international actors, one country has more responsibility than others: the United States.

Liberia gained its independence in 1847 and became the world’s second black republic after Haiti. However, its historical ties to the United States…

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Viking Treasure

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Viking treasure haul unearthed in Scotland

VikingTreasure

In total, more than 100 items were recovered, including armbands, a cross and brooches

A haul of Viking treasure has been unearthed from a field in south west Scotland by an amateur using a metal detector.

Derek McLennan, a retired businessman from Ayrshire, made the find in Dumfriesshire in September.

In total, more than 100 items were recovered, including armbands, a cross and brooches.

Experts have said the discovery is one of the most important Viking hoards ever found in Scotland.

The items are believed to be worth a six-figure sum.

Mr McLennan last year uncovered Scotland’s biggest haul of medieval silver coins.

Among the objects within the hoard is an early Christian cross thought to date from the 9th or 10th Century.

The solid silver cross has enamelled decorations which experts consider to be highly unusual.

The haul also includes possibly the largest silver Carolingian pot ever discovered, with its lid still in place.

The pot is likely to have been around 100 years old when the hoard was buried in the mid 9th or 10th Centuries.

Source: BBCNews Read and see more

Bronze Burden

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What should Uruguay do with its Nazi eagle?

The German government fears the eagle could end up in the hands of Nazi sympathisers

World War Two was never as close to land in South America as on 13 December 1939, when three Royal Navy cruisers challenged Germany’s Admiral Graf Spee off the coast of Uruguay.

A battle still goes on 75 years later.

This time, however, the matter in dispute is not the control of the South Atlantic but rather a controversial four-tonne bronze eagle that could fetch millions of dollars at auction.

The spread eagle with a swastika under its talons was recovered off the coast of Uruguay in 2006 by private investors.

It was part of the stern of the Graf Spee, which was once one of the most modern battleships in the world.

The cruiser was scuttled by its captain in Montevideo Bay soon after the Battle of the River Plate. The captain had feared that if captured, the British would steal information about its state-of-the-art technology.

The bronze eagle, which was one of the most remarkable symbols of the German Third Reich, now rests at a warehouse guarded by the Uruguayan navy.

Source: BBCNews Read and see more

Earth faces sixth ‘great extinction’

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…with 41% of amphibians set to go the way of the dodo

Analysis for prestigious Nature magazine sounds alarm on the way that human activity, from overfishing to agriculture, is forcing a vast number of species to vanish from the wild

A Tasmanian tiger in captivity, circa 1930, shortly before the species became extinct. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images

A stark depiction of the threat hanging over the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians and other life forms has been published by the prestigious scientific journal, Nature. A special analysis carried out by the journal indicates that a staggering 41% of all amphibians on the planet now face extinction while 26% of mammal species and 13% of birds are similarly threatened.

Many species are already critically endangered and close to extinction, including the Sumatran elephant, Amur leopard and mountain gorilla. But also in danger of vanishing from the wild, it now appears, are animals that are currently rated as merely being endangered: bonobos, bluefin tuna and loggerhead turtles, for example.

In each case, the finger of blame points directly at human activities. The continuing spread of agriculture is destroying millions of hectares of wild habitats every year, leaving animals without homes, while the introduction of invasive species, often helped by humans, is also devastating native populations. At the same time, pollution and overfishing are destroying marine ecosystems.

“Habitat destruction, pollution or overfishing either kills off wild creatures and plants or leaves them badly weakened,” said Derek Tittensor, a marine ecologist at the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge. “The trouble is that in coming decades, the additional threat of worsening climate change will become more and more pronounced and could then kill off these survivors.”

The problem, according to Nature, is exacerbated because of the huge gaps in scientists’ knowledge about the planet’s biodiversity. Estimates of the total number of species of animals, plants and fungi alive vary from 2 million to 50 million. In addition, estimates of current rates of species disappearances vary from 500 to 36,000 a year. “That is the real problem we face,” added Tittensor. “The scale of uncertainty is huge.”

In the end, however, the data indicate that the world is heading inexorably towards a mass extinction – which is defined as one involving a loss of 75% of species or more. This could arrive in less than a hundred years or could take a thousand, depending on extinction rates.

Source: TheGuardian Read more

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