The top stories of 2009

Here are the top news stories of 2009 according to an Associated Press poll of the nation’s newspaper editors and news directors:

1. THE ECONOMY: Despite a $787 billion federal stimulus package, much of the U.S. economy continued to sputter throughout the year. The jobless rate topped 10 percent, scores of banks failed, the federal deficit tripled to a record $1.4 trillion, and stocks fell to their lowest levels since 1997 before rallying. Yet investment banks’ profits surged, triggering public anger and efforts in Washington to crack down on Wall Street bonuses.

2. OBAMA INAUGURATION: Inauguration Day in January was a moving moment for many Americans, as the nation’s first black president took the oath of office. But Obama soon confronted the sobering realities of governing as he struggled to get the economy back on track and win support for his ambitious legislative priorities.

3. HEALTH CARE: A sweeping overhaul of the U.S. health care system, extending coverage to millions of Americans now without it, was a top priority for Obama and majority Democrats in Congress. But Republicans were almost unanimously opposed, leading to complex, bitterly partisan showdowns in both chambers.

4. AUTO INDUSTRY: It was an immensely challenging year for America’s Big Three automakers. General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, GM’s CEO Rick Wagoner was ousted by the government, and Chrysler was pressured into an alliance with Italy’s Fiat. Ford avoided bankruptcy, but its worldwide sales — like its competitors’ — fell sharply.

5. SWINE FLU: Swine flu struck tens of millions of people worldwide, worrying governments as supplies of vaccine failed to meet demand. In the United States, according to federal authorities, swine flu sickened an estimated 50 million people, hospitalized close to 200,000 and killed 10,000.

6. AFGHANISTAN: Casualties on all sides mounted as U.S. forces, with their Afghan and NATO allies, battled the resilient Taliban. President Obama, after lengthy deliberations, opted to send 30,000 more troops. His decision was complicated by the disputed Afghan election, which prompted allegations of widespread fraud but resulted in President Hamid Karzai taking office for a second five-year term.

7. MICHAEL JACKSON DIES: The “King of Pop” died at the age of 50, triggering grief and nostalgia among his legions of fans around the world. His doctor became the focus of a Los Angeles police homicide investigation after telling investigators he administered propofol, a powerful operating room anesthetic, to help the pop star sleep.

8. FORT HOOD RAMPAGE: An Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Hasan, was accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, a sprawling military base in Texas, before being seriously wounded by police gun fire. Investigations were launched to determine if authorities missed warning signs that might have prevented the rampage.

9. EDWARD KENNEDY DIES: Sen. Edward Kennedy, who carried on the family legacy after the deaths of his three older brothers, died of brain cancer after a distinctive political career filled with highs and lows. Though his own presidential aspirations were thwarted, he earned bipartisan respect for decades of hard work in the Senate.

10. MIRACLE ON HUDSON: A US Airways passenger jet, both its engines disabled, made an emergency ditching in the Hudson River, and all 155 on board survived in what was dubbed “The Miracle on the Hudson.” The veteran pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, was hailed as a hero for averting a disaster.

What ones would you leave out and what would you replace them with? Are there any other events of the past year that were especially notable or significant?

Christmas Eve is Christmas

In the ancient world, the end of the day was when the sun went down. The night time counted as the beginning of the next day. This is the Biblical reckoning: “The evening and the morning were the first day.” To this day, Jews begin celebrating the Sabbath as soon as the sun goes down on Friday night.

This means that Christmas begins with Christmas Eve. So if your custom is to open presents on Christmas Eve, as long as you do it after the sun goes down, IT’S ALL RIGHT!

More historical forensics

Forensics experts have reconstructed the faces of other historical figures, just as they did St. Nicholas (see yesterday’s post), based on study of their skulls. Here is Copernicus:

Copernicus, reconstructed

Here is Pharoah Tutankhamun:

Tutankhamun, reconstructed

Here is possibly Phillip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s one-eyed father (though the identification has been disputed and is possibly that of Phillip III who succeeded Alexander):

Phillip II of Macedon, reconstructed

What St. Nicholas (a.k.a. “Santa Claus”) actually looked like

Forensic experts have done their number on the skull of St. Nicholas of Myra and have reconstructed what this notable 4th century Christian–who slapped Arius at the Council of Nicea and was famous for his generosity to poor children– must have actually looked like:

St. Nicholas reconstruction

The thing is, he looks pretty much the way our cultural imagination thought he would look! I mean, dress him in a red suit and put a pointy cap on his head, and you’ve got our notion of Santa Claus!

OK, he lacks the ruddy complexion, but Myra is in present-day Turkey and St. Nicholas was a Middle Easterner. As for the white beard, this is an element in ancient iconography of St. Nicholas, so it is not unlikely that he had one. He also has a broken nose. Maybe Arius hit him back!

Click the link for details about how this research was conducted. Though some of the relics held by Catholic churches are spurious, some, such as the bones of specific saints, are well-attested. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing. Seeing what these folks looked like reminds us of the historicity of the Christian faith through the ages and that the great figures of church history were human beings who were not that much different from us.

HT: Paul McCain

Why Christmas is on December 25

Biblical Archaeology Review has a good scholarly discussion of why Christmas is celebrated on December 25. And it is evidently NOT because it was superimposed on a pagan holiday:

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.

It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly. . . .

There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character. . . . In the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E. . . . .

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8 But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d

This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

The article goes on to document other ancient sources that associate the day of Jesus’s conception with the day of His death, going back to rabbinic Jewish texts that make similar connections.

Writing on the Shroud of Turin?

A researcher has found traces of writing on the Shroud of Turin that, she says, provides evidence of its authenticity as the burial cloth of Christ. From Faint Shroud of Turin text proves artifact real, book says:

A Vatican researcher claims a nearly invisible text on the Shroud of Turin proves the authenticity of the artifact revered as Jesus' burial cloth.

The claim made in a new book by historian Barbara Frale drew immediate skepticism from some scientists, who maintain the shroud is a medieval forgery.

Ms. Frale, a researcher at the Vatican archives, said Friday that she used computers to enhance images of faintly written words in Greek, Latin and Aramaic scattered across the shroud.

She asserts the words include the name "Jesus Nazarene" in Greek, proving the text could not be of medieval origin because no Christian at the time, even a forger, would have labeled Jesus a Nazarene without referring to his divinity.

The shroud bears the figure of a crucified man, complete with blood seeping out of nailed hands and feet, and believers say Christ's image was recorded on the linen fibers at the time of his resurrection.

The fragile artifact, owned by the Vatican, is kept locked in a special protective chamber in Turin's cathedral and is rarely shown.

Skeptics point out that radiocarbon dating conducted in 1988 determined it was made in the 13th or 14th century.

While faint letters scattered around the face on the shroud were seen decades ago, serious researchers dismissed them due to the test's results, Ms. Frale told the Associated Press.

But when she cut out the words from photos of the shroud and showed them to experts, they concurred the writing style was typical of the Middle East in the first century – Jesus' time.

She believes the text was written on a document by a clerk and glued to the shroud over the face so the body could be identified by relatives and buried properly. Metals in the ink used at the time may have allowed the writing to transfer to the linen, Ms. Frale claimed.

She said the text also partially confirms the Gospels' account of Jesus' final moments. A fragment in Greek that can be read as "removed at the ninth hour" may refer to Christ's time of death reported in the holy texts, she said.

I take no position on the authenticity of the Shroud, and agree that we are to believe through the Word only. And yet, I first read about the artifact at a key time in my life, and it reminded me (then in the liberal church of my childhood) that Christianity is not about some vague, cloudy abstractions but about tangible, historical realities. So I am still interested. But defenders of the Shroud need to answer those radio-carbon dates. I would add that if there is writing in Greek on the cloth, that it would be unlikely to have been put there by a European medieval forger, since the Greek language was not known in the West in the 13th and 14th centuries.


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