an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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Shakespeare and the English language

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Shakespeare’s reconstructed Globe Theatre (my pic) – without the 16th century atmosphere

Canto: I think from time to time about Shakespeare – in fact ever since I was given a complete works for Christmas when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I used to read it on the swing in our backyard – congratulating myself on getting some of Falstaff’s witticisms. The Abbey Library Shakespeare. I still have it almost fifty years later, though I can barely read its minuscule print these days.

Jacinta: Yes I know you’re an admirer, but what do you think of all this stuff about Shakespeare’s massive contribution to the English language? I’ve always thought it was a bit exaggerated.

Canto: Interesting topic, because in one sense I agree with you. But this relates to all those awful people – Derek Jacobi was unfortunately among them – who seem to think that Shakespeare was too low-class to have written the plays. As a not very upper-class bloke meself I feel deeply miffed. Shakespeare’s plays run the class gamut because he himself was about as déclassé as a fellow in Elizabethan England could be, son of a successful businessman, educated in a relatively déclassé school, and, like us, motivated to learn by ear and by the lessons of life – an autodidact and a dilettante.

Jacinta: The counter-argument I’ve heard – to the idea that he must’ve been some Lord or other – is that upper-class education of that time, and perhaps in most periods, just wasn’t all that good. Not to mention the generally cloistered lives of scions of the aristocracy, who not only wouldn’t have been much exposed to a lot of ‘street-talk’, but would’ve been inhibited by their class pride to admit to such knowledge. Writers like Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney were more in the aristocratic mould, full of classical references, ancient legends, knight-errants and lords and ladies – not at all rough around the edges.

Canto: Yes it seems to me Shakespeare was more drawn to real life, and plays were the perfect vehicle for him, to present, in what he imagined were their own terms, kings, commoners and everyone in between. Which brings me to your question about his contribution to the English language. Clearly this was a guy who loved language, almost for its own sake, and he had a finely-tuned ear for it. He certainly read plenty, for his history plays and classically-themed plays, and travelled in his mind and through reading to Venice, Verona, Rome, Athens, Padua, Paris, Ephesus, Alexandria, Navarre, Troy, Messina, Marseilles, Inverness, Illyria – and that’s not a complete list of venues outside of England. I won’t go on with the English settings. I think this need or desire to set his plays in such varied and far-flung places and eras is an indication of an all-encompassing mind, a wannabe space-time traveller, sampling human discourse and psychology in all its variety, and his interest in language was in keeping with that. As to his contribution to English, speaking quantitatively, the reason that I’m perhaps inclined to agree with you is that scholars, historians, lexicographers and so forth, probably tend to emphasise the written over the spoken language, and so under-estimate the inventiveness of the spoken word, and those who speak it. My uneducated guess is that many if not most of the new coinages we find in Shakespeare, including nouns from verbs and vice versa, may have been part of the ‘illiterate’ street discourse Shakespeare picked up in the London taverns where he conceived, and possibly even wrote, scenes for his plays. They just hadn’t been committed to writing before.

Jacinta: Yes, sounds like a class thing – the idea that the lower classes, not being formally educated, or literate as you say, couldn’t be inventive or creative…

Canto: Or simply indifferent to the ‘rules’ in their need to communicate. We know that new languages – creoles – are created by children, equipped by evolution with some unconscious sense of linguistic structure which allows them to bridge the gap between two distinctive language groups thrown together by chance or coercion. The urge to communicate overthrows any sense of linguistic purity or pride, which in any case is merely nascent in the child’s mind. I’m not saying that Shakespeare was tapping into anything so radical as a new language, and I’m not sure how polyglot London was in his time, but there was undoubtedly a diversity of classes and trades…

Jacinta: Some basic research gives a feel for the place:

The population of London had risen to 200,000 by 1600 and the city was evolving as the multicultural city that it is today. There was a Jewish community in Bishopsgate and a few thousand black people – servants, musicians, and dancers. There were also many Huguenot and Flemish refugees.

Southwark [site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre] was London’s entertainment zone… . The theatres, surrounded by inns, taverns, cockpits, gambling houses and brothels were in Southwark. Partly because of the influx of crowds, Southwark was a dangerous place to wander about in after dark, with muggers, drunkards and pickpockets everywhere.

Shakespeare would almost certainly have visited the Royal Exchange on Threadneedle street – the world’s first shopping mall. It was similar to a modern shopping mall,  a huge arcaded building with banking facilities and accommodation for more than two hundred shops and thousands of businessmen. One could buy wigs, jewellery, perfume, hats, shoes, breeches, shirts, ruffles, feathers, silks, drugs, wine, spices, paper, ink, candles, toys, and anything else you could think of.

Public executions were Elizabethan Londoners’ most popular spectator activity. Londoners had a choice among the different kinds of executions: they could go to Tower Hill where the upper class condemned were beheaded with a broadsword or axe or head to Tyburn or Smithfield to see some hangings of ordinary traitors and common criminals. There were about a thousand hangings a year.

Canto: Yes, so you could imagine all sorts of raunchy patois ringing in Will’s ears as he constructed plays set throughout Europe but full of the bustling energy of the city he’d made his home. This richness of language had never been set down in language before. Chaucer should no doubt be cited as a precursor, but the language had changed markedly in the intervening years, what with the ‘great vowel shift’ and the transformations from Middle English. These two great artists were stand-outs in preserving, and no doubt imaginatively adding to, much of the richness of ‘ordinary’ speech of their time.

Jacinta: Okay, two cheers for autodidacts and dilettantes…

Written by stewart henderson

July 6, 2019 at 3:49 pm

More subsequent remarks preliminary to a voyage

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my officially incipient tache - a supposedly fun thing I'll never grow again

my officially incipient tache – a supposedly fun thing I’ll never grow again

So as flight-time draws nigh, it’s hard to describe my tangle of emotions. The first is dread that this is the end [litt ref 3.5, with apologies to the Doors]. I have a micro-fear of flying, and this’ll be the first long haul. I love embracing travellers’ lingo. We’re flying Emirates, stopping over at Dubai, but the thing is, we’re flying all night. I mean, how do the pilots see anything?

OK, I know it’s all ineffably hi-tech and the safest form of transport ever invented and night flights are pushbuttoningly routine, and Mick Jagger’s still alive and dancin after 10 zillion flights, but there have to be exceptions to prove rules perhaps, and when disasters do happen they’re always spectacular. I mean, you don’t get a dose of whiplash from a plane crash. They’re not called prangs. It’s, like, 279 dead, body parts spread over an xx-kilometre zone, so much for safety in numbers, and I’m wondering, as strangely-pathetically I often do, what will be the reaction to my passing…

But enough self-indulgence, I’ll be right on the night. Still the other emotions and stressors are pastel in comparison. In fact, actually, truthfully, the flight’s the only real issue. Money, la langue francaise, communications home, possible tensions with my TC, health concerns (not flu jabbed, tsk tsk), all mere nanothemes. I’m collecting gratis advice – take a KO dose of valium, get drunk, use nasal spray (done), chew gum (will do), sleep, get over it, enough self-indulgence.

The home I leave behind will be tenanted by a sweet young miss of whom I will say no more in the unlikely event that she reads this blog, and I must say I’ll miss the daily watched-kettle-not-boiling progress of the various building sites in my neighbourhood, with, as a neighbour pointed out, possibly lethally ambitious NYC names like the Bowery, the Beeline (or is it the Beehive?) and Park Central. Really. Cafés and R & R areas are proliferating and jackhammers and earth-pounding noise-makers are just starting to shape the projected City Square a few blocks away. How thrilling it’ll be to actually notice a difference come the end of May. I don’t feel at all cynical about it, as a relative newcomer to regular acceptable employment, a parvenu, a bourgeois – but not assez plat, to recall the slicing words of Stendhal [litt ref 4.5]. Besides, I’ve encountered a few of the occupants of the new medium density constructs sprouting around me (I mean sighted them, not met them) and mostly they look just as spivvy as myself. And the enviro-ideas shaping those buildings really are exciting, but I’m too excited – just about to be picked up and driven to the airport – to detail them now. I will survive [musical reference 1 – but then the Doors reference should really be a  musical reference not a half-litt reference – ok no more ref-mentions].

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2016 at 6:00 pm

remarks subsequent to my preliminary remarks preliminary to a voyage

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the modest vessel we may be travelling on - specially designed to resemble passing buildings

the modest vessel we may be travelling on – specially designed to resemble passing buildings

As might’ve been guessed, I’ll be maxing out on prétention française in this blog series, as soon I’ll be desecrating French soil for the première fois since gaining a degree in French Lang & Litt, aged 32, more than a standard generation ago. Just the other day I reached the end of my French duolingo app. I was horror-shocked, I thought it just lingoed on forever, but no they have no more to teach (BS really) and the only next step is immersion, supposedly.

The problem is, l have enough trouble speaking to people in my first language. I wouldn’t be surprised if l’ve spoken to myself (aloud) more than to the whole rest of humanity. The best conversations, selon Chekhov [literary ref 1]. My vocab’s pretty extensive, my reading’s well fluent but I have trouble stringing a speaking sentence together even in my head (l’m referring to French by the way), so l’m looking forward/not looking forward to the challenge of Paris.

But before that lies the riverboat cruise, and I’m prepping for it by rereading David Foster Wallace’s ‘a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again’ [litt ref 2], which l first read when it came out 20 years ago and found almost inexplicably exciting, comparing it (in conversation with myself, aloud) to Shakespeare himself [litt ref 3] in its lingual liveliness.

‘a supposedly fun thing…’ was a piece of journalism Wallace wrote for Harper’s, reflections on a 7-day Carribean cruise in one of those floating wedding-cake-type vessels passengered almost entirely by obese middle-aged-to-elderly Americans and mainly owned-and-operated by those seafarers of long standing, Greeks and Scandinavians. I thought that rereading it now would happily reinforce my cynicism about such pleasure cruises, and also provide a rich scatter of points of comparison. What I’ve found is a darker side to his observations I hadn’t fully noted on first reading, but which Wallace’s suicide in 2008 has naturally primed my attention to. Here’s the clearest example:

There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir – especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased – I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture – a weird yearning for death combined with the crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling  of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.

These dark remarks, out of a clear Carribean sky, made for an unexpected turn in the narrative, but they forced my focus onto the saturnine aspects of the whole. Was the staff’s hierarchy really so aggressive? The pampering so relentless? The passengers so grotesque or pathetic? The cruise in general so despair-engendering?

Anyhow, Travel Marvel, the cruise company we’ll be sailing (deliciously al fresco word) with, is Australian-owned, a marvel in itself, so l’ll be expecting a more laid-back perfection. And though l may lack Wallace’s prose luminosity l may also lack his lugubriosity, for better or worse. Encore, on verra.

Silly postscript: While writing this and getting tired, I baulked at having to copy out the longish quote from Wallace (I type horribly), so I tried Siri, the not-so-hot Apple voice-recognition thingy. It did mostly OK with the occasional mangle, to be expected with oddities like ‘banalised’ and ‘gaiety-noise’, but there was one cackle-inducing clanger – ‘with the crushing sense of my own small nose’. Poor D F Wallace, rest in peace with no more crushing burdens large or small.

Written by stewart henderson

April 21, 2016 at 11:39 pm

the fall – when curiosity was shameful, and miracles abounded

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the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

I’ve been reading some medieval literature recently, and I’d like to make a brief comparison here between the writings of Benedict of Nursia (c480-547) and Pope Greg the Great (reigned from 589 to 604), and the Roman writers of a few centuries before, such as Livy, Tacitus, Cicero and Plutarch. It’s maybe a bit unfair as Greg and Ben perhaps weren’t typical writers of the sixth century, I’m hardly medievalist enough to say, but still they capture for me the tragedy of the soi-disant Dark Ages for the development of thought and ideas. I’ll be quoting from the medieval writers, but only referring to the Romans – you’ll just have to take my word for it about their smarts.

Benedict of Nursia is probably better known as Saint Benedict, but I don’t like that appellation – not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because nobody does, as in order to become a saint it must’ve been ‘proven’ that you performed miracles, and such silliness shouldn’t be encouraged. More importantly, this nominatively determined method of severing such individuals from common humanity does us all a disservice. Anyway, Benedict was the founder of 12 monasteries or communities in Italy, and he wrote rules for them which were later adopted in other regions to form the basis of the Benedictine system of monks – though there was never really a strict Benedictine order (monks who live communally under a set of rules are called cenobites). I’ve just read these rules, followed by Pope Gregory’s  hagiography of Benedict, and it gives me a perspective on the closing of the European mind – if that’s not too grandiose a term – associated with the Dark Ages.

Benedict is praised for what Wikipedia calls the ‘balance, moderation and reasonableness’ of his rules, which facilitated their adoption by many European monasteries. However, moderation is a relative term, and as a rabid anti-authoritarian I probably chafe more than most under imposed rules. Still, I reckon most independent-minded modern westerners would find Benedict’s rules deadeningly stifling, and if they were considered moderate for the time, I’d hate to think about the more immoderate rules that the pious were forced to submit to. But judge for yourself.

Benedict states at the outset that ‘we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord’. This isn’t of course a school in the modern sense, it’s more like certain types of Madrassa, in which nothing outside of sacred texts is studied. The school or institute is to be presided over by an Abbot, chosen for his personal qualities, including self-discipline, firmness, compassion and insight into the ways of the Lord. Recalcitrant souls need to be coaxed or reproved into the narrow path. However,

… bold, proud, hard and disobedient characters he should curb at the very beginning of their ill-doing by stripes and other bodily punishments, knowing that it is written, ‘The fool is not corrected with words’, and again, ‘Beat your son with the rod and you will deliver his soul from death’.

I suppose this isn’t too much worse than a lot of army-style biffo, as depicted in Full Metal Jacket and the like, but there’s more, and monasticism was a life commitment. Benedict goes on a lot about humility and seriousness – he frowns upon laughter. He also insists, ominously, on narrowness, for ‘strait is the gate and narrow is the way’ to salvation, as we all know. Clearly the lives of these life-long penitents are going to be highly circumscribed. Patience, endurance, humility and obedience are the watchwords.

The monks’ days are rigidly ordered. Prayers are to be offered up 7 times a day (more often than in Islam, even) because, according to Benedict, the Prophet says ‘seven times in the day I have rendered praise to you’. Who this prophet was I can’t ascertain, and there’s no such quote in the Bible, though Isaiah and Luke both display a fondness for the number. In any case, Benedict gives instructions about the number and type of psalms to be sung at the Morning Office, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Prayers are to be ‘short and pure’, in compliance with the spirit of silence that should inhabit, not to say inhibit, the school. One of the longest chapters is ‘On Humility’, in which Benedict defines 12 different degrees of humility, as the monk becomes more and more cleansed of vice and sin:

The tenth degree of humility is that he be not ready and quick to laugh, for it is written, ‘The fool lifts up his voice in laughter’.

The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he do so gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, in few and sensible words, and that he be not noisy in his speech. It is written, ‘A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’

Again, Benedict doesn’t tells us where these dubious claims are written, but they don’t seem to come from the Bible. In any case, you get the idea, the fantasy that suppression of all spontaneity and originality leads through the narrow gate unto heaven.

Of course, the microcosm of the monastery doesn’t necessarily reflect the macrocosm of medieval Europe, but in a world of more or less homogenous Christian belief many of these ‘ideals’ would have been prominent. Not that the previous Roman world was that much better, as far as the nurturing of curiosity and intellectual inquiry was concerned. Roman society was also quite rigid in its structure, and philosophically, neither the Stoics nor the Epicureans thought in terms of intellectual progress. But the near-obsessive stifling of curiosity, the obsession with an obedient, humble, slavish attitude before an all-knowing master-god, that was very much a product of the Christianising of the Empire and ultimately of all Europe. The kind of reflective history-writing and philosophising found in the work of Tacitus, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, dealing with human psychology and conduct in its own right, without reference to divine expectations, all but disappeared for centuries.

Interestingly, along with the fashion for slavishness came a flourishing of credulity. Pope Gregory the Great’s bio of Benedict teems with his miracles and fulfilled prophecies, reminding us that the age of Jesus wasn’t the dimmest for unbelievable beliefs, though it may have sparked the fashion for them. There’s virtually a miracle on every page, so I’ll quote here one of the first, from when he was a youth, having abandoned his studies to serve his Master, to give you a taste:

When Benedict abandoned his studies to go into solitude, he was accompanied by his nurse, who loved him dearly. As they were passing through Affile, a number of devout men invited them to stay there and provided them with lodging near the Church of St Peter. One day, after asking her neighbours to lend her a tray for cleaning wheat, the nurse happened to leave it on the edge of the table and when she came back she found it had slipped off and broken in two. The poor woman burst into tears, she had just borrowed this tray and now it was ruined. Benedict, who had always been a devout and thoughtful boy, felt sorry for his nurse when he saw her weeping. Quietly picking up both the pieces, he knelt down by himself and prayed earnestly to God, even to the point of tears. No sooner had he finished his prayer than he noticed that the two pieces were joined together, without even a mark to show where the tray had been broken. Hurrying back at once, he cheerfully reassured his nurse and handed her the tray in perfect condition.

Of course, this little tale is partly designed to show Benedict’s kindness and attentiveness in small matters, and perhaps that’s the best take-home message, but not all the miracles are so nice, and some display the wish-fulfilling fantasy of bringing down enemies. The point, though, is that these miracles are disseminated by the highest religious authorities in Europe, so that it would amount to sacrilege to deny them. Interestingly, when I was nine years old, my mother bought me a collection of books called ‘Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories’ – about ten books each with about ten stories in them, and every one told of a miracle much like this one (and to be fair to my mother, she hadn’t vetted them first and wasn’t aware that they were Christian propaganda). People had fallen on hard times or had suffered an accident, they prayed to God, their fortunes were miraculously reversed. They were very formulaic stories, and I steamed with annoyance on reading them, but it’s fascinating to find a template for that kind of writing from nearly 1400 years before. How the world has changed and how some aspects of it remain.

What is interesting for me, though, is the connection between credulity and authority that marks the Dark Ages. As a youngster I was free to, and took delight in, spurning the ‘authority’ of Uncle Arthur and his benevolent miracles. I’m a creature of my era and social milieu, as we all are, but there are many social milieux in our world. I’ve just seen a TV clip about the ‘fight of the century’ between one Floyd Mayweather and the Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. I’m not much into boxing these days (I was a keen follower of the sport in my youth), but I hear this fight is being billed as goodie v baddie, because Mayweather is a convicted wife-beater and apparently something of a self-advertising loudmouth whereas Pacquiao is a member of parliament, charity worker and other respectable things. However, when I just looked at the screen I saw Pacquaio wearing a t-shirt with ‘Jesus is my Lord’ or some such thing emblazoned on it, and I felt a spurt of disgust. I have a visceral reaction to the slavishness and submission of the two most common religions on the planet. The old ‘pagan’ religions certainly engaged in seasonal placatory gestures but they didn’t practice or preach eternal submission to their invisible and undetectable masters. And not only are we supposed to accept our enslavement, but to exalt in our specialness. It’s the most horrible kind of unreality, to me. So there’s still plenty of darkness to deal with, or to avoid. Let’s remember Goethe’s reputed last words – more light.

some thoughts on humanism and activism

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What Australia needs


I’ve been a little more involved in ‘movements’ in recent years, though I’m not usually much of a joiner, and I’ve always been wary of ‘activism’, which is often associated with protesting, personning the barricades (doesn’t have quite the aggressive ring to it, does it?), even a bit of biffo – if largely verbal, by preference. I’ve just been hungry for a bit of stimulus – salon culture, witty and cultured and informative exchanges with people cleverer than myself. But since I’ve been occasionally asked to engage on a higher, or deeper level, in ‘the culture wars’, on the side of reason, atheism, secularism, humanism, whatever, my thoughts on the matter have started to crystallise, and they’re hopefully in evidence in my blog writing.

I don’t mind calling myself an activist for humanism, or for other isms, but I think we should be activists for rather than against. Now it might be argued that to argue for one thing is to argue against another, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think it matters a great deal. It’s a matter of trying to be positive and influencing others with your positivity. Secular humanism has a great case to promote, as do reason, self-awareness and ‘skepticism with sympathy’.

I’ve learned from years of teaching students from scores of different countries and cultures that we all can be excited by learning new stuff, that we’re amused by similar things, that we all want to improve and to be loved and appreciated. The ties that bind us as humans are far greater than those that divide us culturally or in other ways. I’ve also learned that the first principle of good teaching is to engage your students, rather than haranguing or badgering them. This may not seem easy when you’re teaching something as apparently dry and contentless as language and grammar, but language is essentially a technology for communicating content, and if we didn’t have anything meaningful or important to communicate, we’d never have developed it. So the key is to engage students with content that’s relevant to them, and stimulating and thought-provoking enough that they’ll want to communicate those thoughts.

I suppose I’m talking about constructive engagement, and this is the best form of activism. Of course, like everyone, I don’t always ‘constructively engage’. I get mad and frustrated, I dismiss with contempt, I feel offended or vengeful, yet the best antidote to those negative feelings is simple, and that is to throw yourself into the lives, the culture, the background of your ‘enemy’, or the ‘other’, which requires imagination as well as knowledge. I mis-spent a lot of my youth reading fiction from non-English backgrounds – from France and Germany, from Russia and eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. It was a lot cheaper than travelling, especially as I avoided a lot of paid work in order to indulge my reading. Of course I read other stuff too, history, philosophy, psychology, new-wave feminism, but fiction – good fiction, of course – situated all these subjects and issues within conflicted, emotional, culturally-shaped and striving individuals, and provided me with a sense of the almost unfathomable complexity of human endeavour. The understanding of multiple backgrounds and contexts, especially when recognising that your own background is a product of so much chance, creates multiple sympathies, and that’s essential to humanism, to my mind.

However, there are limits to such identifications. Steven Pinker discusses this in The better angels of our nature (the best advertisement for humanism I’ve ever read) by criticising the overuse, or abuse, of the term ’empathy’ and expressing his preference for ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an impossible ideal, and it can involve losing your own bearings in identifying with another. There are always broader considerations.

Take the case of the vaccination debate. While there are definitely charlatans out there directly benefitting from the spread of misinformation, most of the people we meet who are opposed to vaccination aren’t of that kind, usually they have personal stories or information from people they trust that has caused them to think the way they do. We can surely feel sympathy with such people – after all, we also have had personal experiences that have massively influenced how we think, and we get much of our info from people we trust. But we also have evidence, or know how to get it. We owe it to ourselves and others to be educated on these matters. How many of us who advocate vaccination know how a vaccine actually works? If we wish to enter that particular debate, a working knowledge of the science is an essential prerequisite (and it’s not so difficult, there’s a lot of reliable explanatory material online, including videos), together with a historical knowledge of the benefits of vaccination in virtually eradicating various diseases. To arm yourself with and disseminate such knowledge is, to me, the best form of humanist activism.

I’ll choose a couple more topical issues, to look at how we could and should be positively active, IMHO. The first, current in Australia, is chaplaincy in schools. The second, a pressing issue right now for Australians but of universal import, is capital punishment.

The rather odd idea of chaplaincy in schools was first mooted by Federal Minister Greg Hunt in 2006 after lobbying from a church leader and was acted upon by the Howard government in 2007. It was odd for a number of reasons. First, education is generally held to be a state rather than a federal responsibility, and second, our public education system has no provision in it for religious instruction or religious proselytising. The term ‘chaplain’ has a clear religious, or to be more precise Christian, association, so why, in the 21st century, in an increasingly multicultural society in which Christianity was clearly on the decline according to decades of census figures, and more obviously evidenced by scores of empty churches in each state, was the federal government introducing these Christian reps into our schools via taxpayer funds? It was an issue tailor-made for humanist organisations, humanism being dedicated – and I trust my view on this is uncontroversial – to emphasising what unites us,  in terms of human rights and responsibilities, rather than what divides us (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc). To introduce these specifically Christian workers, out of the blue, into an increasingly non-Christian arena, seemed almost deliberately divisive.

Currently the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron Williams, of the Humanist Society of Queensland. As far as I’m aware, Williams’ challenge was largely self-funded, but assisted by a donation from at least one of the state humanist societies. This was a cause that could and should have been financed and driven by humanists in a nationally co-ordinated campaign, which would have enabled humanists to have a voice on the issue, and to make a positive contribution to the debate.

What would have been that contribution? Above all to provide evidence, for the growing secularism and multiculturalism of the nation and therefore the clearly anachronistic and potentially divisive nature of the government’s policy. Identification with every Christian denomination is dropping as a percentage of the national population, and the drop is accelerating. This is nobody’s opinion, it’s simply a fact. Church attendance is at the lowest it’s ever been in our Christian history – another fact. Humanists could have gone on the front foot in questioning the role of these chaplains. In the legislation they’re expected to provide “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, but there’s an insistence that they shouldn’t replace school counsellors, for counselling isn’t their role. Apparently they’re to provide support without counselling, just by ‘being there’. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have their photos on the school walls? The ‘spirituality’ role is one that humanists could have a lot of fun with. I’ve heard the argument that people are just as religious as ever, but that they’ve rejected the established churches, and are developing their own spirituality, their own relationship to their god, so I suppose it would follow that their spirituality needs to be nourished at school. But the government has made a clear requirement that chaplains need to be members of an established religion (and obviously of a Christian denomination), so how exactly is that going to work?

While humour, along with High Court challenges and pointed questions about commitment to real education and student welfare, would be the way to ‘get active’ with the school chaplaincy fiasco, the capital punishment issue is rather more serious.

The Indonesian decision to execute convicted drug pedlars of various nationalities has attracted a lot of unwanted publicity, from an Indonesian perspective, but a lot of the response, including some from our government, has been lecturing and hectoring. People almost gleefully describe the Indonesians as barbarians and delight in the term ‘state-sanctioned murder’, mostly unaware of the vast changes in our society that have made capital punishment, which ended here in the sixties, seem like something positively medieval. These changes have not occurred to the same degree in other parts of the world, and as humanists, with a hopefully international perspective, we should be cognisant of this, aware of the diversity, and sympathetic to the issues faced by other nations faced with serious drug and crime problems. But above all we should look to offer humane solutions.

By far the best contribution to this issue I’ve heard so far has come from Richard Branson, representing the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), who spoke of his and other commissioners’ interest in speaking to the Indonesians about solutions to their drug problems, not to lecture or to threaten, but to advise on drug policies that work. No mention was made about capital punishment, which I think was a good thing, for what has rendered capital punishment obsolete more than anything else has been the development of societies that see their members as flawed but capable, mostly, of development for the better. Solutions to crime, drug use and many other issues – including, for that matter, joining terrorist organisations – are rarely punitive. They involve support, communication and connection. Branson, interviewed on the ABC’s morning news program, pointed to the evidence showing that harsh penalties had no effect on the drug trade, and that the most effective policy by far was legalisation. It’s probably not a story that our government would be sympathetic to, and it takes us deeply into the politics of drug law reform, but it is in fact a science-based approach to the issue that humanists should be active in supporting and promulgating. Branson pointed to the example of Portugal, which had, he claimed, drug problems as serious as that of Indonesia, which have since been greatly alleviated through a decriminalisation and harm-reduction approach.

I hope to write more about the GCDP’s interesting and productive-looking take on drug policy on my Solutions OK website in the future. Meanwhile, this is just the sort of helpful initiative that humanists should be active in getting behind. Indonesians are arguing that the damage being done by drug pushers requires harshly punitive measures, but the GCDP’s approach, which bypasses the tricky issue of national sovereignty, and capital punishment itself, is offered in a spirit of co-operation that is perfectly in line with an active, positive humanism.

So humanism should be as active as possible, in my view, and humanists should strive to get themselves heard on such broad issues as education, crime, equity and the environment, but they should enter the fray armed with solutions that are thoughtful, practicable and humane. Hopefully, we’re here to help.

a change of focus, and Charlie Darwin’s teenage fantasies

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He's just so moi, though I'm more rough than ruff

He’s just so moi, though I’m more rough than ruff

“bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal”

Michel de Montaigne, ‘Myself’

Sitting at my computer with the ABC’s ‘Rage’ on in the background, when on came a video by an artist who’s taken the moniker ‘Montaigne’, and how could I not be attracted? Good luck to her. I first stumbled on the original Montaigne decades ago, and like thousands before and since, I was fairly blown away. He’s been an inspiration and a touchstone ever since, and to think I’m now approaching his age at his death. One thing he wrote has always stayed with me, and I’ll misquote in the Montaignian tradition, being more concerned with the idea than the actual words – something like ‘I write not to learn about myself, but to create myself’. This raises the importance of writing, of written language, to an almost ridiculous degree, and I feel it in myself, as I’ve sacrificed much to my writing, such as it is. Certainly relationships, friendships, career – but I was always bad at those. All I have to show for it is a body of work, much of it lost, certainly before the blogosphere came along, the blogosphere that retains everything, for better or worse.

The New Yorker captures the appeal of Montaigne well. He wasn’t an autobiographical writer, in that he didn’t dwell on the details of his own life, but as a skeptic who trusted little beyond his own thoughts, he provided a fascinating insight into a liberal and wide-ranging thinker of an earlier era, and he liberated the minds of those who came later and were inspired by his example, including moi, some 400 years on. So, I’d like to make my writings a bit more Montaignian in future (I’ve been thinking about it for a while).

I’ve been focussing mainly on science heretofore, but there are hundreds of bloggers better qualified to write about science than me. My excuse, now and in the future, is that I’m keen to educate myself, and science will continue to play a major part, as I’m a thorough-going materialist and endlessly interested in our expanding technological achievements and our increasing knowledge. But I want to be a little more random in my focus, to reflect on implications, trends, and my experience of being in this rapidly changing world. We’ll see how it pans out.

what's in that noddle?

what’s in that noddle?

Reading the celebrated biography of Charles Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, I was intrigued by some remarks in a letter to his cousin and friend, William Darwin Fox, referring to the ‘paradise’ of Fanny and Sarah Owen’s bedrooms. This was 1828, and the 19-year-old Darwin, already an avid and accomplished beetle collector and on his way to becoming a self-made naturalist, was contemplating ‘divinity’ studies at Cambridge, having flunked out of medicine in Edinburgh. Fanny was his girlfriend at the time. These bedrooms were

‘a paradise… about which, like any good Mussulman I am always thinking… (only here) the black-eyed Houris… do not merely exist in Mahomets noddle, but are real substantial flesh and blood.’

It’s not so much the sensual avidity shown by the 19-year-old that intrigues me here, but the religious attitude (and the fascinating reference to Islam). For someone about to embark on a godly career – though with the definite intention of using it to further his passion for naturalism – such a cavalier treatment of religion, albeit the wrong one, as ‘inside the noddle’, is quite revealing. But then Darwin’s immediate family, or the males at least, were all quasi-freethinkers, unlike his Wedgewood cousins. Darwin never took the idea of Holy Orders seriously.

Written by stewart henderson

February 8, 2015 at 10:53 am

where does our alphabet come from?

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Etruscan ink-holder, with alphabet, from the early 7th century BCE

Etruscan ink-holder, with alphabet, from the early 7th century BCE

I’m currently reading Lost languages: the enigma of the world’s undeciphered scripts, by Andrew Robinson, a pretty demanding work in parts, though designed for the general reader. It’s looking at the difficulty of scripts of which we have too few examples, and too few connected languages – either descended from or ancestral to these extant fragments – to be able to get a handle on them. However it also looks at famous decipherings of the past – of the Egyptian and the Mayan hieroglyphs, and of Linear B (Mycenean, the earliest form of Greek), as well as at written languages in general, which inevitably makes a fellow think of his own taken-for-granted language, its origins and its ‘type’, among all the types of writing we have.

Robinson informs us of a consensus among scholars, arrived at though much struggle – that all written languages contain phonemic and semantic, or logographic, elements. A dummy’s way of presenting this is that they contain both sounds and signs. Our alphabet is, of course, largely phonemic, but in writing we also use signs, such as full stops, question marks, apostrophes, quotation marks, etc. We also use capitals. For example B represents the same sound as b, but it also signifies the beginning of a sentence or (the beginning of) a name of something. It follows that b also has a sign value, in contrast to the sign value of B. Apparently Finnish is the most purely phonemic language we have these days, while Chinese and Japanese are very heavily sign based.

So what about the English language, or more strictly, the alphabet we share with many other European languages. It’s generally known as the Latin alphabet, and it was introduced to England by Christian missionaries in about the 7th century, replacing Anglo-Saxon runes that date back at least another couple of hundred years. These runes may also be traced back to the Latin alphabet – we don’t have enough extant examples to be sure.

The alphabet has evolved over the years. Wikipedia tells us that back in the year 1011 a polymath named Byrhtferth set down the alphabet as it was understood at the time. It comprised 23 of our modern letters (J, U and W had not yet emerged), the ampersand & and five other letter/symbols no longer recognised, or at least formally recognised, as alphabetical. One was the ligature æ, called ash. In the fourteenth century the letters uu, often used together, were merged to make w, still called ‘double u’ today. The alphabet became fixed in the sixteenth century, when j and u emerged as distinct from i and v.

So it would seem that the Latin alphabet evolved, much like humans evolved from earlier forms, with little mutations along the way, so that if you go back far enough it’ll be barely recognisable. What is called the classical Latin or Roman alphabet derived from a western variant of the Greek alphabet, used in southern Italian colonies such as Cumae in modern-day Campania. This was in turn modified by the Etruscans (800-100BCE) before being taken up and modified further by the Romans.

It’s an enormously complicated story of interaction and modification. The English alphabet isn’t exactly the Latin alphabet, which itself changed as the Romans developed and advanced their civilization, incorporating more territories and their cultural influences. It’s not something you can trace in an obvious linear way. The Romans were influenced linguistically by both the southern colonies and the northern Etruscans. After the Roman conquest of Greece in the first century BCE, the Greek letters Y and Z were added to their alphabet, giving them 23 letters during the ‘classical’ period (the period of the late republic and the empire). Our number system – obviously a part of our written language, but I won’t get too much into mathematical symbology here – is often described as Arabic, but the Arabs and Persians adopted it from the Hindus, who apparently developed the place-value notation in the fifth century, adding zero a century later.

If we want to go back to the origin of writing systems and writing itself, it seems not to have had a single origin. I’ve mentioned the  ancestor of Latin, the Greek alphabet, which has been around since the eighth century BCE and is still in use. It consists of 24 letters from alpha to omega, and of course many of its symbols, including pi, are used in mathematical notation. The Greek alphabet in turn derives from the Phoenician. There is some dispute or at least conjecture as to how far back the Phoenician alphabet can be dated – a bit like putting a date on the first humans, who after all had parents who were much the same as they were. Scholars generally put the date back to 1050 BCE, and inscriptions with Phoenician elements before that date are attributed to ‘parent scripts’. To quote the Wikipedia article:

The oldest known inscription that goes by the name of Phoenician is the Ahiram epitaph, engraved on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram from c. 1200 BCE.[5]

However, the immediate predecessor to Phoenician is conventionally referred to as Proto-Canaanite. Ancestral to this was the Proto-Sinaite script, used by Canaanites in the Sinai region from about 1850 BCE. We don’t have too many examples of it, but it’s claimed by some to be the first ever alphabetic writing system. Most of the inscriptions using this language, generally accepted as Semitic, were found among Egyptian hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions, and there are graphic similarities to the hieratic script, which is less elaborate than hieroglyphics, but little headway has been made in deriving the Semitic script from Egyptian hieratic.

Egyptian hieroglyphics can be dated back to 2700 BCE. They’re complex beasties that can be used as phonograms, logograms or determinatives; in other words as sounds or sound sequences, as pictorial representations, or as clues to meaning neither clearly pictorial nor phonological (in earlier times hieroglyphics were doggedly construed as almost entirely logographic, and this hindered a full decoding). It’s quite possible, apparently, that the Proto-Sinaite script was influenced by the phonological (hence alphabetical) elements of hieroglyphics.

The Meroitic script, again probably derived from hieroglyphics, is an alphabetic script used in the Nubian Kingdom of Meroe in what is now northern Sudan. It first appeared in the second century BCE and flourished at the height of Nubian power (750 to 300 BCE). It appears to have developed independently of the Greek alphabet, though some scholars claim a connection.

One of the earliest known writing systems, Cuneiform, emerged in Sumer in the late 4th millennium BCE . The term ‘cuneiform’ means wedge-shaped, and was so named by its wedge-shaped markings left on clay tablets. The earliest Cuneiform was pictorial, but over time it became more stylized, simplified and abstract. The Cuneiform of the early bronze age contained about 1000 characters, but this was down to 400 by the late bronze age, some 1500 years later. Sumerian is not really recognised as a fully fledged language by scholars until about the 31st century BCE.

So is there an earlier form of writing than Cuneiform? I suspect that there were innumerable forms of proto-writing, symbols used with a shared, tribal meaning indecipherable to outsiders, and that this could have gone on for millennia. It just happened that with early Sumerian civilization we had a larger clot of people together than ever before, and with that, language took a further step towards codification and regularisation.

So I’ve gone a bit further back than our alphabet, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of language development. Tracing all the connections is an endless and ongoing task, and we’re continuing to make headway, but the key to all this is human ingenuity in finding such a variety of more or less efficient systems to communicate and preserve increasingly complex ideas, which whole regions of our developing brains are devoted to. There’s so much more to say on this subject.

Written by stewart henderson

September 24, 2013 at 11:06 pm

books and e-books

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don't bother, at least not with the ebook version

don’t bother, at least not with the ebook version

Change is the only certainty, and the world of books (made of paper), booksellers and publishers is having this little apothegm rubbed painfully in its face at present, it seems to me, and, as a person who loves books but has always been poor as a church-mouse, I feel rather caught in the middle of all this transition, and pulled more or less equally in the directions of tradition and transformation.

After all, the choice between e-books and the traditional version is a little more fraught than that between CDs (please note – no fucking apostrophe) and MP3 downloads. Books don’t just go back to the days of Gutenberg and Caxton, or the movable type that was used in Korea from at least the thirteenth century. The library of Alexandria, founded well over 2000 years ago by the Ptolemaic dynasty (Ptolemy Soter, the ‘illegitimate’ son of Philip of Macedon, half-brother and general of Alexander the Great,  and subsequent ruler of Egypt, was probably its originator) is said to have contained some 500,000 papyrus scrolls, all now lost to history. That’s one advantage of e-books; they render book-burnings obsolete.

So writing on paper, or its antecedents, has a long and proud history, and is now being threatened for the first time in millennia by new technology. So I’ve been feeling this weight of history when ducking into the odd bookshop lately. I’ve been a bookshop-haunter for forty years, and it’s pretty obvious that they’re going through tough times now. As with CDs, makeshift shops full of cheap editions are cropping up here and there, then just as suddenly disappearing when the number of buyers drops off. I was in one the other day, and held in my hand a prettily-packaged volume of Ovid, called The Art of Love, selling for a mere $7. It was apparently an amalgamation of two collections, Amores and Ars Amatoria, and a ridiculous bargain, but even that tiny amount gave me pause. I’d always wanted to explore Ovid’s works on love, because of their influence on Shakespeare, but I’ve been so caught up with reading sciencey stuff lately, almost to the point of addiction, and then it occurred to me that, with my new Kindle, I could probably download all of Ovid’s works for free…

I ended up buying three cheap books, one of them sciencey. The lab rat chronicles: a neuroscientist reveals life lessons from the planet’s most successful mammals comes with a recommendation from Patricia Churchland, no less, and I suspect that such books aren’t available through Kindle, at least not at anything less than $10, the price I paid. Ok I’ve just checked, and it is available, at exactly the same price. The 2 other books I bought were God is not one: the eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter, by Stephen Prothero ($10), and How to win a cosmic war: confronting radical religion, by Reza Aslan ($8). Interestingly, the Prothero book isn’t available on Amazon, but the Aslan one is, for $10. So there are still bargains to be had offline. However Amazon is always reducing its prices, as books move from ‘must read-nows’ to ‘has-beens’. That’s happening in the bookstores too, of course, but not at the same rate. Then again, though you’re unlikely to get hold of the complete works of Plato (Benjamin Jowett translation, presumably with his excellent introductions) in a second-hand bookshop for a dollar – the going Amazon price – there are book exchanges (there’s one in the caf around the corner from me) where you can pick up one of an admittedly limited selection of books for free, with the idea that you exchange it for something of your own, honour bound.

So I weigh the pros and cons and ponder the senses of guilt and obligation. The kindle is light and convenient, and easy to read in bed. My eyesight is poor, so I appreciate a backlit screen as opposed to the foxed and mouldering pages of a second-hand text, though I wonder if the light is damaging my eyes even more. On the other hand its caveat emptor with some of these e-books. One of the first ones I bought (okay it was free so I’m not really allowed to complain) was A very brief history of the first crusade, by one Mark Black. Brief it was, more of a pamphlet than a book. I have a copy of Christopher Tyerman’s monumental history of the crusades on my shelves, but I gave up on it a few years back after about 200 pages = too many Count Theobalds and Sir Roberts, too many family connections and names and names and names, I felt as confused as any medieval plebeian might have felt when caught up in the thick of it, but without the concentration of the mind an imminent death would’ve usefully brought on. So I thought this brief history might offer a clearer view, but I was more than disappointed. I suspect everything in it was lifted from Tyerman’s book, so it told me nothing new. What was worse, though, was that the grammar was often hilariously bad. I have a feeling it wasn’t actually edited by a human being. Possibly the text was used as an experimental test case for robotic proofreading. A black mark for Mark Black, whose name, I note, crops up for many of these ‘brief histories’, mostly unrelated to each other. Anyway, an odd experience.

So I’m not entirely convinced of the new reading technology, though the possibilities are obvious, and it’s clearly a mode still in its infancy. Hopefully the two ways of packaging good reading material will live side by side for a while to come, and I look forward to accessing both, long into the future.

Written by stewart henderson

May 24, 2013 at 8:27 pm

alchemical fun

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Here in Adelaide, a show called The Illusionists has recently started a 2 week season at the Festival Centre. On this morning’s ABC breakfast news show, we were informed that, after a ten-year doldrum period, magic is back in fashion. Great!

So it was with some amusement that I happened to come across, today, in my holiday reading of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the tale of a dastardly magical trick, which involved a priest, a canon, and that most riveting of medieval delusions, the alchemical philosopher’s stone.

The tale is called ‘The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale’, and it describes the trick in masterly detail. The yeoman begins though, by describing at length, and at the same time cursing, for he’s a thorough sceptic, the various ingredients and utensils employed in the black art of ‘the transmutation of metals’. The ingredients included arsenic trisulphide, burnt bones, iron flakes, quicksilver, sublimated mercury, lead monoxide, Armenian red clay, borax, verdigris, reddening waters, sal ammoniac, brimstone, bull’s gall, unslaked lime, chalk, egg-white, various powders, ashes, dung, clay, urine, wax-sealed bags, vitriol, saltpeter, horse’s or human hair, alkali, oil of tartar, alum glass, yeast, unfermented beer, crude tartar, disulphide of arsenic, and of course a pinch of salt and pepper. There were also essential herbs such as agrimony, valerian, moonwort and others. The vessels and utensils included molds, assaying vessels, alembics, vials, crucibles, sublimation vessels, urinals, flasks and such, in which the ingredients underwent such processes as sublimation, amalgamation, coagulation, calcination, albification, cementing, fermenting, absorption and citronation, to name but a few.

And on top of all that was the vital ingredient, element, catalyst or whatever, the philosopher’s stone, or elixir, which was, of course, ever-elusive. And these ‘scientists’ were always recognisable by the burn marks over their bodies, the ever-present stench of brimstone, and their threadbare clothes, for none of them ever found what they were looking for.

Thus our canon’s yeoman sets the scene, then he introduces a peripatetic canon, far more subtle and tricky in his wickedness than the canon of the title. The canon comes to London, where he pays a visit to a wealthy but popular priest, begging him for a small loan which he promises to repay within 3 days – ‘And if you find me unreliable, have me hanged by the neck  the next time’.

The kindly priest agrees, and the wily canon fulfils his part of the bargain 3 days later. Thus having cemented a bond, the fast talker promises to show the priest the secrets of the alchemical trade, and the great advances he himself has made in creating silver out of base metal. Of course the priest is more than eager to be acquainted with such developments, so, upon instruction, he fetches 3 ounces of quicksilver and a heap of coals, and they begin forthwith. Chattering all the while about the years it cost him to perfect his technique, and the expense of the powders he has obtained to do the job, he pulls a crucible from beneath his robe, sets the priest to firing it up with hot coals, and adding an ounce of quicksilver:

And the canon threw a powder into the crucible to deceive this priest. I don’t know what it was made of, but whether it was chalk, or glass, or something else, it wasn’t worth a fly.

Some coals were placed on top of the crucible to add to the heat, and, while distracting the priest with the supposed action of the powder, the canon slipped an imitation coal, made of beechwood, among the others. This false coal had a hole gouged into it, into which the crafty canon had placed an ounce of silver filings, ‘and the opening sealed tight with wax to keep the filings in’. The false coal was of course so placed that the filings soon found their way into the crucible mixture.

The canon then suggested to the priest that they go out together and get some chalkstone to fashion into a mold, and a pan of wate. He said he’d go with the priest, to assure him that he’d be up to no monkey business in the priest’s absence. So off they went, locking the door behind them.

Now, the canon had hidden in his sleeve a sheet of silver, weighing only an ounce, and he slyly made a mold from it without the priest noticing. When they returned, he picked up the materials from the fire, put them into the mold, and then threw the whole into the pan of water. When things were sufficiently cooled he asked the priest to rummage about in the pan for there surely must be some silver in there.

In short, the priest found the silver, and was beside himself with excitement. Not content with this trickery however, the canon took him on another ride. They went through the whole rigmarole again, with the quicksilver and the magic powder and the coals, but this time for variation, the canon stirred the concoction with a stick which was actually hollowed out and sealed with wax at the tip, and no guesses for what was secreted inside. Things continued on in this way, with the canon producing different variations on the theme, all of them completely hoodwinking the poor priest. They took the precious metal to a goldsmith, who confirmed that, yes, they’d produced the finest, purest silver. The priest begged to know the canon’s secret, and after much palaver, the canon agreed to sell the formula for the princely sum of ‘forty pounds in nobles’, no doubt a fortune in those days. The priest bought it good and proper, and the canon slipped away, never to be seen again.

So let’s not under-estimate the power of magic! Plus ça change…

Written by stewart henderson

January 3, 2013 at 10:52 pm

towards a sceptical enquiry into the origin of the papacy part 1: the acts of the apostles

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Ages ago I said I’d start each post with a nice quote, then I promptly forgot about it. So here at last is the first.

Quote 1: Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: ‘My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.’ The stranger is a theologian. -Denis Diderot, philosopher (1713-1784) 

I find Wikipedia generally a solid, reliable resource on most matters, particularly matters scientific [as far as I can judge]. However, it is a bit disappointing in some fields, fields in which, admittedly, it’s often difficult to obtain reliable information. Fields such as religion, and religious history.

It was out of frustration with Wikipedia’s treatment of the origins of the Catholic Church that the idea of researching and writing my own piece on this subject first came to me. Wikipedia essentially presents as fact the idea that the apostle Peter was the first Pope, and that he was martyred, along with Paul of Tarsus, author of the letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Thessalonians and so forth, in the 60s CE, during the reign of the Emperor Nero. As far as I currently know, there’s no evidence for this claim. It was a view promoted by the Church historian Irenaeus in a work written about 185. Irenaeus named the first few Popes in a list, but I’m not sure if there’s any independent verification of the accuracy of this list.

What evidence is there of Paul’s martyrdom? By the time of Irenaeus it had become clear that martyrdom was great propaganda for the new religion – a religion based squarely on the martyrdom of Jesus himself, ‘to save humanity from its sins’, though it’s probable that the ‘reason’ for Jesus’s untimely death was still not settled upon in the second century.

There is no account or mention of Paul’s death in the New Testament. A rather bitsy narrative of Paul’s life is found in the Acts of the Apostles, which is apparently contradicted by some of Paul’s own letters, particularly in Galatians [and questions about the veracity of those letters just adds to the confusion]. A letter written by Clement, bishop of Rome, and dating to around 90, is said to refer obliquely to Paul’s martyrdom, but it could easily be argued otherwise, and provides no details whatsoever. Distance lends certainty to the views, and Eusebius of Caeserea, writing centuries later, decisively claims that Paul was beheaded under Nero. Wikipedia provides a list of Popes taken from the Annuario Pontificio [Pontifical Yearbook] which claims Peter the apostle as the first Pope, conveniently reigning from 33 CE, which many claim to be the year of Jesus’s death [in fact he’s most likely to have died a few years later], to the year 64 or 67. It further claims that he was executed by upside-down crucifixion, a claim possibly first made by Origen, as reported by Eusebius. Considering that it’s absolutely clear that no papacy could have existed before Jesus’s death, or even immediately afterwards, this should be taken as myth. It’s generally agreed by serious scholars that the papacy didn’t come into existence in any properly recognisable form until the second century CE.

The major claim for Peter the apostle as the first pope [avant la lettre, as they say] comes from the gospels, in which he sometimes appears to be treated as ‘first among equals’ by Jesus. The key passage is Matthew 16: 18-19:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

There’s a famous pun here on Peter/rock [pevtro], but a number of scholars have questioned the authenticity of the passage, claiming that ‘church’ is an anachronistic term, more or less meaningless in the lifetime of Jesus. This takes us into the endlessly tangled and murky world of Biblical scholarship, and questions of whether Jesus was meant to be speaking Aramaic or Greek at that moment, or whether the contested word [ejkklhsivan], which is only used twice in the gospels, but many times in the later writings of the New Testament, can be stretched to mean ‘assembly’ or some term other than ‘church’.

In any case, all this is sketchy evidence for Peter founding ‘the’ Church in Rome. And why Rome? Well, as a meandering way of getting to that issue, let’s look at the New Testament version of the early expansion of Jesus’s followers, from a small group, to a flock, to something like a rudimentary church. The NT book which best describes this is, of course, The Acts of the Apostles, generally ascribed to the author of the gospel of Luke. At the beginning of Acts, ‘Luke’ writes ‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach…’, and Theophilus is also mentioned at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. From the very first chapter of Acts, Peter stands out, giving a speech in Jerusalem before the other apostles and a host of some 120 other believers [1:15], which leads to their choosing a twelfth apostle, Matthias, to replace the betrayer Judas. Then on the day of Pentecost [50 days after Easter Sunday], Peter gave another speech to a crowd in Jerusalem, attracted by the believers’ speaking in tongues. This stirring speech led to the conversion of 3000 [2:41] and has been commemorated by some as the ‘birthday of the Church’, though it seems clear to me from Peter’s speech that Jesus is still regarded as a messianic figure, a Jewish descendant of David, rather than as a deity or a deity’s offspring. Peter in fact is still referring to Jesus as God’s servant [3:13]. It wasn’t clear what they were about at this time, except perhaps renewal – a favourite theme of new religious groups. ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation,’ says Peter [2:40], and the notion of being ‘saved’, a variation of the Jewish notion of being ‘chosen’, becomes prominent [renewal and continuity].

And so matters continue. The new sect soon swells to 5,000 [4:4], but Peter and John have attracted the attention of the authorities and are imprisoned, questioned and threatened, the first sign of persecution. However, the pair are released, and more converts are gathered, as well as funds, as new believers sell land, houses, etc, and ‘put them at the apostles’ feet’ [4:37]. It all sounds like an excellent blueprint for present-day pentecostalism, and it gets even better with the tale of Ananias and Sapphira [5:1-11]. This married couple sell all their worldlies as the other newbies do, but they decide not to hand it all over, but keep a bit aside. It’s the woman who decides this, as you would expect. But when Ananias sets the money down at Peter’s feet, the apostle is not amused. He comes down on Ananias like a ton of bricks for holding out on him. Ananias, naturally enough, promptly falls down and dies. So they take the poor fellow’s body to Sapphira and Peter asks her if, perhaps, there aren’t some extra funds secreted about the place? No, you’ve got the lot, she says. The same rigmarole follows, she’s exposed as a liar and a hold-out, and she drops down dead. Now that’s what I call a powerful church with a guaranteed financial future.

So the signs, wonders and miracles continue and the number of new believers continues to rise, and the apostles are arrested once more, but are released through angelic intervention. Taken again, they’re brought before the Sanhedrin and rebuked for continuing to preach about Jesus. Their response again reveals that they didn’t see Jesus as the son of their god. They describe him as a prince, and a saviour specifically of the Jewish people [5:31]. A speech by one Gamaliel, who interestingly cites previous Messianic pretenders who turned out to be fizzers, convinces the Sanhedrin to let the apostles off lightly, with a flogging.

The growing group of believers start to factionalize, with Hellenic Jews claiming that they’re being discriminated against. A decision is made to set up a committee to oversee the distribution of food to the poor, headed by Stephen. Clearly things are moving towards a more formal organisation. But rumours are spread about Stephen and he’s dragged before the Sanhedrin, where he gives a rather lecturing speech about Moses, comparing the patriarch’s suffering and ill-treatment at the hands of his own people to the treatment of Jesus, the prophesied Righteous One. This outrages the Sanhedrin, who chase Stephen outside and stone him to death [7:57-60]. An apparent passerby, Saul, makes his first Biblical appearance in this scene.

After this first martyrdom comes the first systematic persecution of the new sect, with Saul represented as the primary persecutor [8:3]. However, this doesn’t stop them continuing to spread, and one of the apostles, Philip, is described as being very successful in Samaria [just to the north of Judea and Jerusalem], clinching the primary vote there for the new party. That’s when they send in the big guns, Peter and John, to secure the area with the laying on of hands [8:14-17]. Philip went on campaigning, travelling up and down the coast from Ashdod to Caesarea. Meanwhile Saul travelled to Damascus [quite a distance] to try to flush out believers in the new sect, and was struck blind on the road just before getting there, and heard the voice of Jesus and was thenceforth the new sect’s most vigorous campaigner, spreading the word in the Damascus synagogues [still, therefore, focussing solely on the Jews?]. What’s more, here we get the first really unequivocal claim, in Acts at least, about Jesus’s godhood [9:20]. Although the emphasis is largely on the Jews here, Saul is described – by the Lord apparently – as ‘my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel’ [9:16]. One of the first indications that this still-fuzzy new movement is not to be bounded by any particular culture or region.

There is plenty of Jewish resistance to the new movement however, and Saul is smuggled out of Damascus, barely escaping with his life. He returns to Jerusalem, where his outspokenness creates new converts and new enemies. He’s finally spirited back to Tarsus, his home town, in modern Turkey. Saul’s absence from the scene marks a period of peace and growth in Judea, Samaria and Galilee, and growth of the movement. It seems Saul was into argy-bargy, whereas Peter took the more popular route of healing the sick and raising the dead [9:32-42]. Peter also receives a sign, in a dream, that no animals are unclean, and interprets this to mean that no human is unclean either, and that the old proscription on Jews communing with unclean [uncircumcised] and unchosen gentiles is to be abandoned within the new movement [10:10-46]. It’s a key moment in the development of the sect, but Peter has a lot of explaining to do when he gets back to Jerusalem.

Meanwhile believers, spread by the persecutions after Stephen’s death as far afield as Phoenicia [the coastal area of modern Lebanon and Syria], Cyprus and Antioch [now in southern Turkey], continued to win over the Jews of these regions, but in Antioch many Greek gentiles also converted, so the Jerusalem apostles sent one of their big guns, Barnabas, to put their campaign on a more professional footing. Since he was in the area, he hopped over to Tarsus to fetch Saul to Antioch and together they preached the word – for a whole year. It was at Antioch that the term ‘Christian’ was first used [11:26]. It was apparently a time of famine, and the Christians of Antioch sent aid packages to their fellows in Judea [11:28-30].

Meanwhile again the situation in Jerusalem remained tense, with traditional Jews, angry at the flouting of sacred law by these new Christians, persuading Herod to arrest Peter. Of course he miraculously escapes, and it’s Herod who dies ‘eaten by worms’ because of his hubris and his refusal to ‘give praise to God’ [12:23]. The Herod mentioned here is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. It seems more likely that Antipas died in exile, as Josephus claims.

Saul and Barnabas leave Antioch after their year of missionary work and pass over to Cyprus. It’s about here that Saul starts getting called Paul. They go on preaching but Paul gets into an argument with an attendant of the Cyprian proconsul, insults him and miraculously blinds him [Paul’s first miracle, and not such a positive one]. The Christians then sail to Pamphylia [now in south-west Turkey], then travel on inland to Pisidian Antioch in Galatia, always preaching in the synagogues [I’m not sure if this term should be taken literally, if there are large Jewish settlements in Asia Minor at this time]. However, the crowds they draw consist of ‘fellow Israelites’ and gentiles together [13:16]. Paul gives a speech in Antioch relating the stories of Moses, the forty years in the wilderness, Saul and David, and then bringing things ‘up to date with John the Baptist and Jesus. It’s basically a more thoroughgoing and ‘sophisticated’ version of the story Stephen was stoned to death for, complete with the standard claims about prophecies fulfilled. He also makes some pretty reckless campaign promises, the principal one being, ‘vote Jesus and all your sins will be forgiven’ – which really attracted the masses [13:38-39]. Which goes to show that the voters in those days were just as gullible as voters today.

Paul and Barnabas were chased out of Pisidian Antioch by the Jews and others, and they went to Iconium [modern Konya, in south-central Turkey], where they preached to ‘Jews and Greeks’ and sowed division, as they seemed to do everywhere. When things got too hot they fled to the surrounding country, preaching and campaigning all the while. In the town of Lystra we hear of the first clash with paganism. Interestingly, Wikipedia claims Paul’s first visit to Lystra as occurring in the year 48, but only cites Acts as a reference. Surely more evidence than this is needed for a date. Possibly because of language problems [14:11], the crowd take the Christian pair for gods [this seems a highly unlikely story, though the ‘fact’ that Paul had just healed a lame man might explain it], Paul as Hermes and Barnabas as Zeus. Of course the pair protest vehemently, and the crowd turn against them, stoning Paul almost to death. And so they continued, preaching and argy-bargying in the region, till finally setting sail again for the flourishing Christian centre of Antioch, where they related their exciting adventures among the distant gentiles.

Meanwhile in Judea, a crisis had arisen about the relationship between circumcision and being saved. So Paul and Barnabas bustled down to Jerusalem to sort things out. They were greeted everywhere like conquering heroes, but some Pharisees brought up the circumcision issue, insisting that every gentile who wanted to make the cut had to make the cut. Lots of discussion ensued, and finally James, quoting Peter [who may or may not have been in attendance], and quoting Bible prophecy, makes a judgement that only certain parts of Mosaic law need be kept by the gentiles, not including circumcision. The official written decision is taken back to Antioch. One of the first ‘universal’ decisions of the new religion, interestingly made by James, not Peter or Paul.

Soon Paul and Barnabas were itching to resume their missionary travels, but they quarrelled over who to take with them, and decided to part ways, Barnabas sailing back to Cyprus, and Paul heading north and west through Syria and Cilicia [15:36-41].

So Paul landed up at Lystra again, and met one of the residents, Timothy, who impressed him so much that took him on as a fellow-campaigner, but not before having him circumcised. Tim’s Dad was Greek, and Paul must have thought this was a sufficient liability that it required circumcision to overcome – an interesting indication that it was still predominantly Jews that the campaigners were targeting. It’s also stated that there was a large Jewish population in the area, a remark that may be reliable, as there’s no propaganda purpose to be served in making it [16:3]. It’s also interesting that Paul & Tim were prevented ‘by the Holy Spirit’ from preaching in ‘Asia’, the name of a Roman province which today covers the western extremity of Turkey, apart from a section to the north, known in ancient times as Bithynia. They confined themselves to preaching on the eastern borders of this region, until, heading west through Bithynia, they reached Troas, near the ancient city of Troy, where Paul was told in a vision to head for Macedonia, across the Aegean in Europe proper. At this point the narrative switches inexplicably from the third person to the first person plural. Nothing if not adventurous, they sailed out to the island of Samothrace, thence to Neapolis [modern Kavala] and finally Philippi, of historical renown.

Philippi, however, was a Roman city, and a much tougher nut to crack for the Christian campaigners, who found themselves [Paul & Silas] before the local magistrates, who sentenced them to be severely flogged and put in the stocks. But guess what, after a night of fervent prayer, an earthquake broke open the prison in which they were being held. But no, The Christian pair didn’t make good their escape, they stayed put, bringing about the conversion of their jailer, who’d thought he was done for because of their likely escape. The magistrates sent word in the morning to release the pair, but Paul made a fuss about their being Roman citizens [this is the first mention of this fact, I think], and complained about their treatment – an interesting piece of privilege-demanding, which had an immediate effect. They were treated more respectfully and escorted out of the place. They travelled and campaigned through Macedonia and into Thessalonica. They were gaining a larger following,including ‘quite a few prominent women’ [17:4], and of course many enemies who claimed that they were trying to proclaim another king in direct opposition to Caesar. There were many riots and struggles, and eventually Paul was smuggled out of the area for his safety, landing up eventually in Athens, where he soon found himself arguing with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers [when in Athens…]. They invited him to the Areopagus to discuss his latest research findings on his god and Jesus and so forth. Paul proceeds to lecture them, in his modest way, about who the real and one and only god is. ‘We are his offspring,’ he proclaims [17:28], cleverly quoting a Stoic philosopher [Aratus]. He also talks about the coming judgement day, thenceforth a major galvanising theme. Naturally this stuff thoroughly polarises his audience, but he keeps gaining new followers.

Next, he visits Corinth, meeting Jews there who have fled from Italy because the Emperor Claudius has banished Jews from Rome [18:2]. This claim is somewhat disputed, though Suetonius makes passing reference to it. It’s especially disputed that Claudius was acting to prevent escalating disputes between Jews and Christians, though it’s a tantalising possibility. We’re probably talking about a time period here of 49 or 50CE. We also learn, in passing, that Paul was a tentmaker by trade. Silas and Timothy joined Paul from Macedonia, but guess what, they had a falling out with him, apparently over the old Jew/Gentile issue. Paul seems to be more concerned with wooing gentiles than keeping faith with the Jews. He stayed eighteen months in Corinth, on the orders of his god. The Jews of the city complained bitterly to the proconsul Gallio about Paul’s flouting of Jewish law, but Gallio refused to intervene. Finally he left Corinth and returned to Syria, making a brief campaign stopover at Ephesus, then going down to Caesarea and reporting in at Jerusalem, then back up to Antioch.

Of course he was soon back on his endless campaign trail, gathering more baptisms for the cause in Phyrygia and Galatia. Everywhere, it seems, whether in Ephesus or elsewhere, he left behind disciples who kept up the Christian fervour. Some of them, however, taught false doctrines which Paul had to correct – the first sign of the ‘heresies’ that preoccupied the Christian movement in the pre-Constantine era, and beyond. Paul made his way inland to Ephesus again [it was on the coast of Asia Minor, modern-day west Turkey, and was a major trading port] and preached there for a long time – some two to three years [19:1-10]. Emphasis on the holy spirit and such like led to issues around ‘possession’ and exorcism, creating more controversy, which Paul, if the narrative is to be believed [ho ho], was always able to take advantage of, constantly swelling the numbers of the baptised. Finally he decided to return to Jerusalem, taking a roundabout course – in fact going in the opposite direction – through Macedonia and Achaea. But before he left a riot broke out in Ephesus, when pagan artisans, followers of the goddess Artemis, complained that people were being won over to the new religion, which denied the value of carved or sculpted images, affecting their trade. Christianity was devastating their economy [19:23-41].

Paul finally travelled to Macedonia, thence to Greece [gathering more and more fellow-campaigners, many with distinctly Greek names], but was prevented by some trouble from sailing for Syria. He returned to Macedonia, and from Philippi sailed back to Troas in Asia Minor. There’s a charming story from his stay there. While Paul was droning on and on about the greatness of Jesus to the locals in an upstairs room, one of the listeners fell asleep by the window. He fell out the window, down three stories, and lay apparently dead. Paul naturally brought him back to life and he was carried home, while Paul went back upstairs and continued his sermonising. No other incidents occurred. Perhaps they posted guards at the windows [20:7-12]. After a lapse, the narrative returns briefly to the third person, and the group of campaigners embarks on another complicated journey. Paul sets out on foot to Assos to the south, where he’s picked up by the others who have travelled down there by boat. Together they travelled further along the coast to Mytilene. Then they went island-hopping down to Kios and Samos, and then further down to Miletus, bypassing Ephesus. However, he sent for the elders of Ephesus, and gave them a stirring farewell and a pep talk, amongst tears and lamentations. After that, more island-hopping [what fun], over to Kos and then to Rhodes. Next they stopped in at Patara on the mainland [southern Turkey], and then sailed south of Cyprus and landed at Phoenician Tyre [Sour in modern Lebanon], where they were urged not to go on to Jerusalem. They sailed down to the Galilean port of Ptolemais [now Acre], and then further down to the familiar Christian outpost, Caesarea. Paul was continually warned, by prophets and the like, not to go on to Jerusalem, but he couldn’t be dissuaded. He went into the city sought out James and told him and all the faithful about his adventures. They told Paul that the traditional Jews were all stirred up against him. Still Paul went on with public acts of purification, until a crowd built up against him, dragging him from a temple and setting upon him [21:30]. The commander of the Roman troops rescued him, with much difficulty, the crowd was so incensed. As they were making their way into the safety of the barracks, the commander asked Paul “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?” [a rare moment of NT humour, mocking the Roman’s understanding of Jewish lore]. Paul clarified who he was, and asked to speak to the crowd. He spoke to them in their native Aramaic, tellling them of his previous life as Saul the persecutor of Christians, of his blinding before Damascus, of his witnessing of the martyrdom of Stephen, and sundry other events. When he told the crowd of his heaven-sent mission among the gentiles, they became hostile again and would listen no more. The commander ordered him to be flogged and questioned about why the crowd was so enraged, but he played the Roman citizen card again, and again it worked a treat [22:25-29]. Still, the commander wanted to find out what all the fuss was about, so he ordered a meeting of the Sanhedrin, and ordered Paul to appear before it.

Paul, having been brought up in Jerusalem, and having been a protégé of the Sanhedrin member Gamaliel, knew something of its inner workings, so he made a speech playing the Pharisees off against the Sadducees. He claimed to be a Pharisee himself – that’s to say, a believer in resurrection and other signs and wonders, which the Sadducees rejected. The meeting ended in violent uproar as the two factions fought it out, and Paul had to be rescued by the Roman commander once more. That night [and here we prick up our ears] ‘the Lord’ [Yahweh or Jesus?] came to Paul and told him to ‘testify in Rome’ as he has testified in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, a number of Jews had gotten together with a serious plan to kill Paul. Paul was informed, and the information was relayed to the Roman commander. He decided to send Paul, under armed guard, to Caesarea, the seat of the local governor, Felix [23:23-35].

Felix organised a comprehensive hearing in which the High Priest Ananias and various other officials put their case against Paul, whom they described as a ‘ringleader of the Nazarene sect’ [24:5]. It might be expected that all this sectarianism within Judaism, a bizarre enough religion at the best of times, would’ve left Felix completely indifferent, but in fact his wife was Jewish and he was quite familiar with these arguments. He didn’t resolve the dispute though, keeping Paul under ‘house arrest’ for two years, and occasionally questioning him, according to the narrator, in the hope of being offered a bribe. His decision not to favour one side or the other seems to have been deliberate and politic. However, after the two years, Felix was replaced as governor by Porcius Festus [24:27].

Festus had a preliminary hearing about the case in Jerusalem, but refused to bring Paul to Jerusalem, fearing that he might be assassinated. He then interviewed Paul in Caesarea. Paul, as usual, proclaimed his innocence, and ‘appealed to Caesar.’ So Festus decided he should be sent to Rome. Meanwhile, King Agrippa was in town, and discussed the issue with Festus. The discussion as presented in the NIV Bible is quite amusing, I must say. Here are Festus’ imagined words:

  “I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over anyone before they have faced their accusers and have had an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges. When they came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in. When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. But when Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar.” [25:16-21]

It really reads like quite a modern legal dilemma, with an outside, imposed authority unwilling to get too involved in all the internal wranglings of these culturally incoherent ‘underlings’. King Agrippa asked to see this Paul fellow, and was invited into what was presumably Herod’s palace [where Paul was initially held] to question him. Festus was at a loss as to what sort of letter to write to Rome about Paul, so he hoped the interview might shed more light on the matter. So Paul re-presented his defence before Agrippa. This is an interesting scene, with interesting reactions, if faithfully recorded – and there’s absolutely no assurance of that. Paul tells again the whole story of his former life, his conversion, his adventures and misadventures, and the confused and confusing theology of the messiah. Festus reacts by suggesting his theological obsessions have driven him mad. Not an unreasonable claim, which could well apply to the whole Haredi movement as well as to Christian counterparts. Agrippa’s reaction is even more sensible: ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’ [26:28]. Both of the authorities agree that the man is harmless enough, and Festus even claims that, had he not appealed to Rome he would’ve been set free. But we all know that Paul was intending to be sent to Rome all along, don’t we?

So off Paul sails on his final journey. Interestingly, this section too uses the third person. The first stop is Phoenician Sidon, where he’s allowed to stay and confer with friends for a while. Then they sail south of Cyprus and up to Myra in Lycia [the south coast of Turkey], then, in difficult winds, to Cnidus, further west. Finally they set sail for Crete, travelling along its south shore to the town of Lasea. They put into the harbour there and argued about continuing in the stormy weather. They decided to sail on, westwards along the Cretan coast to a better harbour at Phoenix, but they were struck by a fierce storm and forced south. Paul, who’d advised against sailing on, told them that his lord had promised they would all be saved, so never fear but be prepared [27:21-26]. The storm raged for a long time. Soundings taken suggested they would soon be dashed against the rocks, and they prepared to abandon ship, but bossyboots Paul told them they wouldn’t be saved unless they stuck together [there were nearly 300 on board]. They finally ran aground on a sandbar which destroyed the ship’s stern. Everyone escaped unharmed to the nearest mainland, and found that they were on the island of Malta. They built a fire on the shore, and while doing so, Paul was bitten by a viper, but he suffered no ill effects, further proving his near-to-godliness [28:3-6]. Miraculously curing all the sick people on the island also helped.

From Malta they sailed to Syracuse in an Alexandrian ship, and then on to Rhegium and Puteoli in Italy. In Rome, Paul was treated well and given a modicum of freedom. He talked to the Jews there, to explain to them he had no quarrel with them. He was assured that there were no bad reports about him, but they expressed curiosity about this controversial new sect. The book of Acts ends with Paul preaching as usual, dividing the people into pro and con as usual, and it all ends on a positive note:

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!

No sign at this point of any bad end for him, though clearly he was in a delicate and vulnerable position. I also note, in Acts, the diminished position of Peter, who gets no mention after the first chapter or two. You would think from this account that Paul rather than Peter should be accorded the title of first pope, from his arrival in Rome, presumably in the early fifties, to his presumed death under Nero. But did he die then? What evidence, however scant, do we have of this?

I’ve provided this commentary on Acts for my own education, and among other things to make myself aware of what isn’t in the book as well as what is. It’s obviously an important source of the early Christian movement, and it tells us, in this last chapter, that since the Jews know the sect only through hearsay [28:22], it seems clear that they hadn’t really established themselves in Rome before Paul’s arrival. So I’ll have a look at any other sources I can find about Christianity in Rome before the establishment of the papacy.

Written by stewart henderson

April 21, 2012 at 1:01 pm